A mushy white sandwich roll, melted cheese and a squeeze of ketchup. When I first moved to Warsaw to work as a journalist, in the autumn of 1988, a zapiekanka was the most common form of street food. The zapiekanka (za-pyeh-KAN-kah) predated the hamburger, and it certainly wasn’t pizza — not even bad pizza. It was, rather, a pizzalike substance, a poor relative of its distant Italian cousin. The luxury versions had a few overcooked mushrooms beneath the cheese and ketchup.
But, in 1988, I did eat the odd zapiekanka, because there was so little else available. The communist political system was then in its death throes, and the communist food distribution system barely functioned. The state shops were half empty, stocking vinegar, canned meat and dry crackers. Restaurants were slow, expensive and unreliable. Sometimes they had what they claimed to have on the menu. Sometimes they didn’t.
But as 1988 turned into 1989, and as I came to understand the city better, Warsaw began to reveal more of its culinary secrets. Excellent fresh vegetables — naturally organic because the farmers couldn’t afford pesticides — were available at private markets. Alongside them, Russian traders sold jars of Beluga caviar for the equivalent of a few dollars. One of my friends knew a “veal lady” who could deliver black-market meat, and there were good free-range eggs to be found, if you knew whom to ask.
Warsovians were creative with these ingredients and used them to make dishes from all kinds of traditions. One Easter morning, I ate a sumptuous breakfast at a friend’s house. She served me a dish which, she explained, her family had always eaten on the holiday. It was gefilte fish. Light and airy, served with steamed vegetables, it bore no resemblance to the canned versions I once knew back home.
Very soon after that, economic reform came to Poland. Throughout the 1990s, Polish food — and Polish food culture — began to change along with politics, the economy and everything else. The first phase of the transformation was chaotic. Bad, cardboard pizza became available in the new Pizza Huts (and Pizza Hut imitations) that sprang up inside new shopping malls. The “French” restaurants that served meat with heavy sauces at high prices weren’t necessarily much better. Nor were the “Italian” restaurants that served pasta with heavy sauces at high prices.
But as political stability returned, national self-confidence returned along with it. And as the economy grew — and the Polish economy has been growing by leaps and bounds for 20 years — restaurants multiplied. More important, as civil society came back to life, the producers and consumers of good-quality food began to organize themselves.
Slow Food, a movement founded in Italy in 1986 to promote traditional ways of eating and preparing food, acquired its first Polish chapter in 2002. It now allows qualified Polish restaurants to sport its trademark, a small snail. Last summer we ate smoked eel at a Slow Food-approved restaurant on the Baltic Coast. The food might have been “slow,” but the service was excellent, and everything on the menu was available. Nothing about that meal, in fact, resembled the experience of dining in communist Poland.
The revolution has been brought into homes as well. Small Polish producers of oscypek (oh-STSIH-pek), a traditional sheep’s-milk cheese, as well as mead, or fermented honey, are winning prizes at international competitions. Amateur makers of Polish jams, preserves and relishes became professionals, acquiring marketing finesse and better packaging. Small farms and factories producing organic pork or game sausages began to flourish as well. Some have special stands in the supermarkets and malls, where beets preserved with horseradish can be found in elegant jars alongside exotic mustards, flower-flavored honey and cucumber pickles of infinite variety.
The cardboard pizza is still there, if you want to buy it. But there are plenty of alternatives. Nowadays, the best Polish restaurants serve Polish food. Instead of French bread and butter, they offer sourdough bread and szmalec, an old-fashioned peasant spread made of pork fat and spices. Instead of sticky pasta, they serve roast pork with plums or roast duck with apples, lightening and flavoring the traditional recipes with spices and ingredients that were once impossible to find but are now readily available. Trout, venison and wild boar, all historically a part of Polish cuisine, have reappeared on menus.
Some restaurants are also starting to experiment with Polish food, adding twists that nobody’s grandmother ever would have thought possible. That’s nothing new, of course; Poland is flat, and therefore easy to invade. Historically, Poles had a fondness for foreign queens and imported monarchs, which means foreign influences of many kinds can be found in Polish cooking, as in Polish culture or the Polish language. Bona Sforza, the 16th-century Italian-born queen, is alleged to have brought the first soup vegetables to Poland, as well as the first tomatoes. The influence of France — both the French aristocracy and later the French revolutionary circles frequented by Polish exiles in the 19th century — can be seen in the use of mustard and cream sauces.
And, of course, it is hard to say where Polish food ends and Ukrainian or Russian food begins, so similar are the tastes and ingredients. Most Slavic culinary cultures rely upon the fruits and vegetables that can grow in a northern European kitchen garden or can be found in a northern European forest: carrots, leeks, parsnips, beets, cabbages, potatoes, radishes, squashes, apples, plums, walnuts, chestnuts and mushrooms, both cultivated and seasonally wild.
The biggest changes are often found at the lower end of the price scale. When one of my children was younger, his favorite meal was “gas station soup”: chicken broth, that is, served plain with noodles, available at a roadside cafe that was indeed next to a gas station. Even now, one of my family’s favorite restaurants in Poland is a roadside karczma, an inn, that serves only a handful of dishes.
One of those is zurek, a soup based on a broth made from sour bread, filled with white sausage and vegetables, served in a bowl that is made from bread. Another is grilled pork fillets with onions, served on a skewer like a kebab, yet eaten with pickles and grated beet salad. Everything is plain and fresh — just what roadside food usually isn’t.
No wonder trucks and tourists’ cars cram the parking lot outside all summer, and no wonder memories of the zapiekanka long ago faded.
Applebaum writes a column on foreign affairs for The Washington Post. She is co-author, with Danielle Crittenden, of “From a Polish Country House: 90 Recipes for the Ultimate Comfort Food” (Chronicle, 2012).
Makes 10 to 12 cups (8 to 10 servings)
Slightly sour and spicy, this hearty, beloved dish is served at Polish family gatherings. Poultry is not used and pork has become the most common meat ingredient; a variety of meats improves the taste of the stew.
This version is thick enough to pile atop chunks of dark bread, the authors’ suggested way to serve it. The recipe can be doubled or tripled.
Make ahead: The stew improves in flavor after being refrigerated for a day or two, and it freezes well. Adapted from “From a Polish Country House Kitchen: 90 Recipes for the Ultimate Comfort Food,” by Anne Applebaum and Danielle Crittenden (Chronicle, 2012).
1 ¾ pounds homemade or store-bought (one 28-ounce can) sauerkraut, drained
2 cups water
4 thin slices Canadian bacon (about 2½ ounces total; may substitute 4 strips raw bacon), diced
1 small head green cabbage (1½ to 2 pounds), cored and cut into thin slices
Small handful of dried mixed mushrooms (about half of a ¾ ounce package)
8 ounces boneless venison, cut into 1-inch pieces
8 ounces lean boneless stew beef, cut into 1-inch pieces
8 ounces lean boneless pork or veal shoulder, cut into 1-inch pieces
¼ cup flour
3 tablespoons vegetable oil or lard
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 cup dry red wine
8 ounces smoked kielbasa or other spicy hard sausage, cut crosswise into thick slices
1 cup pitted prunes, each cut into quarters
Freshly ground black pepper
Combine the drained sauerkraut, water and diced bacon in a large saucepan over medium heat. Once the liquid starts to bubble at the edges, cover and cook for 20 minutes or until the bacon is cooked and the sauerkraut is tender. The mixture will be fairly soupy.
Meanwhile, combine the cabbage and dried mushrooms in a separate large saucepan. Cover with water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes or until the cabbage is tender. Drain in a colander.
Use paper towels to pat dry the venison, beef and pork or veal shoulder. Place it in a large resealable food storage bag along with the flour; seal and shake to coat evenly. Shake off any excess flour from each piece of meat. Discard any excess flour.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil or lard in a Dutch oven over medium heat; the pot should be large enough to hold all the meat and vegetables. When the oil is hot, add the onion and stir to coat. Cook for about 10 minutes or until softened but not burned. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a bowl.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil or lard to the pot. When it’s hot, add just enough of the meat so that it can brown on both sides; about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate; repeat in batches to brown all the meat (no need to add more oil).
Increase the heat to high; add the wine and immediately use a wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Return all the meat plus any accumulated juices to the pot, along with the onion, sausage, prunes, cabbage-mushroom mixture and the sauerkraut-bacon mixture with all of its remaining cooking liquid. Season generously with salt and pepper, then stir to combine. Once the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook for 2 to 3 hours, stirring occasionally, until a rich dark brown broth has formed and the meat is falling-apart tender. If the mixture seems like it’s getting dry, add water during cooking as needed. It should be moist, but not watery.
Serve hot, or cool completely and refrigerate in an airtight container for up 5 days.
Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
Stuffed Cabbage Rolls With Mushroom Sauce (Golabki z Sosem Grzybowym)
Makes 16 to 20 rolls(6 first-course servings or 4 main-course servings)
This version of Polish golabki (go-WOMP-kee; “little pigeons”) calls for savoy cabbage, whose delicate leaves make for easier rolling than green cabbage. The sauce makes the dish.
Depending on the size and number of cabbage leaves, you might have some leftover stuffing, which can be shaped into meatballs and baked. For this recipe, it’s helpful to use a large pot that has a strainer insert. Leftover cabbage leaves can be refrigerated for a day or two, then coarsely chopped, sauteed in butter and seasoned for serving as a side dish for another meal.
MAKE AHEAD: The cabbage rolls can be frozen for up to 3 months. Reheat in a baking dish in a 325-degree oven for about 25 minutes. The dried mushrooms for the sauce need to be soaked for at least 30 minutes. Adapted from “From a Polish Country House Kitchen: 90 Recipes for the Ultimate Comfort Food,” by Anne Applebaum and Danielle Crittenden (Chronicle, 2012).
For the rolls
2 large heads savoy cabbage (2¾ to 3 pounds total)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup coarsely chopped onion
4 cups cooked white rice
1 pound raw, coarsely chopped pork or chicken breast meat (thigh meat will be juicier, but white meat works as well)
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth
For the sauce
1 ounce dried, mixed mushrooms or porcini mushrooms
2 cups just-boiled water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons minced onion
1 pound mixed fresh mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and coarsely chopped (go for an exotic mix, but if your market offers only portobello, cremini and shiitake, those will work as well)
1 tablespoon flour
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup white wine or dry vermouth
¼ cup heavy cream
Freshly squeezed juice of ½ lemon
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
For the rolls: Fill a pot (large enough to hold a submerged head of cabbage, and preferably with a strainer insert inside) with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the first head of cabbage and parboil for about 10 minutes. Transfer the cabbage to a colander in the sink to drain until it is just cool enough to handle. Repeat with the second head of cabbage. Discard the cabbage cooking liquid.
Gently discard the cabbages’ outer leaves, some of which might be soggy or torn. Those will be used to line the baking dish, as will any small leaves you might accumulate. It helps to cut off some of the coarse stem at the bottom of each leaf as you work. Your goal is to have 16 to 20 medium-to-large leaves for rolling. Use paper towels to pat each of them dry.
Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a small skillet over medium heat and add the onion, stirring to coat. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the onion is lightly browned. Transfer to a food processor and let cool for a few minutes, then add the rice and chopped meat; season generously with salt and pepper. Pulse until incorporated yet not mushy; you should still see individual grains of rice.
Spread the 16 to 20 cabbage leaves on a work surface and divide the filling evenly among the leaves, placing it near the bottom of each leaf. If any stem remaining on the leaf seems especially tough or thick, you can use a vegetable peeler to pare it down. Roll up the leaves, tucking in the sides so the stuffing is contained.
Line the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with the torn/small cabbage leaves. Rest the rolls on top, seam sides down; they can be crowded together, as long as they don’t overlap. If you run out of room in one baking dish, start a smaller, second one, lining it in the same way.
Pour in the broth, which should come no more than a third of the way up the sides of the rolls. Use the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter to dot the tops of the rolls. Bake for 40 minutes to 1 hour or until the tops are golden and slightly crisped.
Transfer the cabbage rolls to a platter and cover with aluminum foil to keep warm (in the turned-off oven). Discard the leaves lining the baking dish, but reserve the broth, which will be added to the mushroom sauce.
For the sauce: Soak the dried mushrooms in the just-boiled water for at least 30 minutes, until softened. Pour the mushrooms and soaking liquid into a bowl through a fine-mesh strainer lined with a paper towel or cheesecloth. Squeeze the mushrooms to extract as much of the moisture as possible, reserving the soaking liquid. Rinse the mushrooms with cold water, pat dry, and coarsely chop.
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and stir to coat; cook for a few minutes, until it is translucent. Add the chopped fresh mushrooms and soaked dried mushrooms, and cook, stirring often, until all the mushrooms are soft and golden.
Sprinkle the mushrooms with the flour, then season lightly with salt and pepper, stirring constantly until the mushrooms are well coated. Slowly add the reserved mushroom soaking liquid, continuing to stir until all of the liquid is blended and the mixture has thickened.
Add the wine or vermouth, then the cream, then any broth remaining in the cabbage rolls’ baking dish, stirring constantly and allowing them to cook for a minute or two before adding the next ingredient. Add the lemon juice and reduce the heat to medium-low; cook for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently, to form a sauce that is rich and thick. If the sauce remains thin after 15 minutes, increase the heat to medium and cook at a gentle boil, stirring. The yield is about 4 cups.
Pour the hot sauce over the cabbage rolls, and serve immediately.