Look Ma, I’m Polish!
So, here’s how it went down: my rapid immersion in eastern European picnic fare — my conversion.
It started with a mess of Pieczen Rzymska, sealed in a large plastic Ziplock bag.
We took the bag out of the refrigerator, opened it and we each wadded up quite a bit of the stuff.
And ate it.
Also in the fridge was a similar sealed bag, filled with Cyganska Szynka. Sliced.
Each of us pulled off four or five of the thin slices, rolled them into tubes.
And ate them.
Quite nice, if impossible to pronounce. Where do they find all those consonants?
With that, we were ready for the big show, the West Slavic main event.
Kurt opened the cupboard and pulled out the large jar of Kapusta Kwaszona and popped the top.
“This, brother, is not made by human hands. No, this is otherworldly; no mere mortal could have fashioned this. Perfection is beyond the reach of we tragically flawed humans. This,” he held the jar up to the golden late afternoon light flooding through the kitchen window, “is the result of divine intervention. It’s the only explanation. I realize it defies reason, but go with your instinct here, bro. Make a leap of faith.”
I had to admit: It was the darned finest looking Kapusta Kwaszona I had seen in a long time.
If it tasted half as good as it looked, we were in for a transformative experience.
Kurt is my brother. Among other things, he is an oenological whiz and, like me, he was infected long ago by the food virus. He is an accomplished and daring cook, capable of setting you back in your chair, your troubled mind cleared and buffed to a high sheen by an unexpected combination of flavors and textures. He knows few peers at the grill and sautés with the best of them. His food interests, experiences and accomplishments span the culinary globe. He is completely at home in the kitchen and the well-stocked cellar.
What Kurt does best, however, is find obscure sources for rare foods. He has prowled everything from the high-end luxury stores, to dingy little holes in the wall at the end of ominous alleyways. He has searched out foods and recipes on four continents. He can tell you where to find the best paillards in Paris, exotic spices in Thailand.
And, as of last weekend, he can guide you to a source for a jar of killer Kapusta Kwazona.
Kurt was here over a recent holiday weekend. He came bearing his family, and gifts.
Cyganska Szynka. Sliced.
Two kinds of sausages whose names are so foreign I hesitate to spell them.
Foreign, as in Polish.
Pieczen Siekana (almost like the Dsiadek the old-timers used to make) and Parowki something or other.
“It’s an unobtrusive joint called SAWA,” he said, describing his supplier. “There’s a place where I get the tires on the van changed and to get there, you have to drive past this crummy shopette, circa 1960. SAWA moved in recently and, at first, the owners didn’t identify what SAWA was. Then, when I went across town to get the snow tires put on the van, I saw added information. The sign read ‘SAWA Market — Meats.’ I pulled a U and found myself in a paradise of sorts: A dimly lit little storefront with a meat counter and shelves along the walls.”
He glowed as he spoke. It was that “I’ve been to Lourdes” kind of glow. The face of someone who has spied a stunning, holy image on a burned tortilla or a piece of French toast.
Kurt launched into a minutely detailed description of the contents of the meat counter — a treasure trove of smoked meats and sausages.
“Polish hams, Karl, three or four deep. And the sausages — so many sausages. ”At first I was paralyzed. When I finally turned from the meat counter to gather my thoughts, I saw a refrigerated case and, next to it, a freezer case. The cases were full of pierogi, every kind imaginable. I was starting to short out, my circuits were snapping. I turned again and there was a bank of shelving and …”
He got a dreamy look in his eyes and hesitated. For a minute I thought he was suffering a flashback, the consequence of a rash moment in the early ’70s when he thought he knew a whole lot more about native mushrooms than he really did.
Then, I wondered if he was suffering one of those odd ischemic events he’s prone to. As a young man, he was one of the best hockey players around and paid the price with a series of nasty head injuries. You’re never quite the same, you know.
But, no. He was recollecting a moment of bliss. Kurt savors the memory of a blissful food shopping moment the way he does a gaudily expensive wine — with all his soul.
“The shelves contained the best display of jars of Polish sauerkraut I’ve seen since I went on a sauerkraut safari in Chicago back in 1982,” he said. “There were so many jars, I seized up. I knew I had to buy something, but I … just … couldn’t … do … it. There was a young woman sitting on the floor, stocking the lower shelves. I doubted she spoke English because she and the man behind the meat counter were yakking incessantly in Polish, but I took a chance and asked her: ‘Excuse me, miss; I know you can answer this question. Which sauerkraut is the best? Tell me.’ She didn’t say a word, she didn’t look away from her business on the bottom shelf. She simply reached up, extending her arm above her head to the third shelf and brought her index finger to rest on top of this jar.”
Manufactured in Poland by Prezetwory Babuni. No fat, no carbs, Recommended serving: 100 grams. Two-hundred milligrams of sodium per serving — enough to shred a vein in the heartiest of men come the fourth of fifth serving.
“Here,” said Kurt, handing me a fork. “Try it.”
I took a bite.
“Is that superb?” he asked.
I was crunching away, but I nodded my head up and down. It wasn’t overly salty, it wasn’t heavy or mushy. It was crisp, and light. The essence of cabbage. Polish kimchi.
“I’ve eaten three jars of it in the last week,” said Kurt as he inhaled a mass of the kraut. “Plus, I whipped up a batch of soup using the juice as a base. I had a bit of a problem with gas at first and had to sleep on the couch, but I’m over it.”
“And the sausages?” I asked.
“There’s no way I could try every kind the market offers before I came here, but I’ve sampled about ten types so far.”
“They make them on site, at SAWA, and these beauties reek of love. I have four or five favorites so far, and I’ve used an entire tank of propane firing up the grill to cook them. I brought the top two for you to sample.”
Kurt opened the fridge and withdrew a large package from the bottom drawer, cradling the white paper-wrapped contents like a baby.
“This one is terrific,” he said, opening the package like a diamond courier opens his case. “This one the guy behind the counter at the market calls a ‘barbecue sausage.’ It’s pork and beef, slightly smoked, loaded with garlic, spiced with a bit of marjoram and mustard seed, if I’m not mistaken. It’s like the best kielbasa you’ve ever had, but meatier, more dense. No resemblance to the commercial crud in the supermarkets. Look here.” He pointed at the center of one of the links where a congealed wad of meat had broken to daylight through the natural lamb casing. “ Analyze this blowout; look at the texture. Amazing.”
“And the other?” I asked.
He reached into the bottom drawer and carefully removed a package.
“Veal and pork, finely ground,” he said, taking out one of the 6-inch links of sausage and turning it in front of my eyes. It was thick, nearly white, blimp-like. “The refined cousin of a bratwurst, delicate, ready to split open, to offer itself to you when cooked to perfection.”
I darted to what is left of my deck and ripped the cover off the grill. Fifteen minutes later, with half the burners cranking big-time BTUs, the others on low all was ready. In the meantime, we made a salad and whisked up a coarse mustard/garlic/extra virgin olive oil/lemon dressing.
On to the grill went the meaty treats, with the heat turned down to medium high. I oiled up three of four bunches of green onions and put them on the top rack of the grill, above the sausages, then I closed the lid.
Oh, the odors emanating from that hot box. A pack of dogs gathered in the street in front of the house. They didn’t blink.
I finished the sausages over low heat and when they were ready, we devoured them slathered with plenty of coarse Dijon, and ate the kraut cold. A couple roasted green onions with the meat ... divine. As an extra treat, Kurt broke out a bottle of another of Przetwory Babuni’s masterpieces: Buraczki Z Chrzanem.
I don’t need to tell you what that is, do I?
According to its Made in Poland label, it is “Healthy Food.” Red beets with horseradish — beet root, horseradish, spices, sugar, salt and vinegar amalgamated into a Slavic salsa.
At first we dipped and dabbed bits of sausage alternately into mustard and Buraczki Z Chrzanem. Then, we gave up all pretense of civility and ate the darned beet and horseradish mix with spoons.
It was a rollicking good time. By meal’s end, I swear I heard accordion music in the distance. I had an urge to do the polka. The dogs were still prowling the street.
Kurt and family have gone home, Kathy and I are back to our routine. Everything is back to normal.
Except, I’ve been Slavicised.
I’m uuzsicng xtrcza conzsnecnantcz n vry wrzsd.
And I’m breaking out my Porkert Fleischacker 10 (a meat grinder with blades of the finest Czech steel) to make some of that Cyganska Szynka.
I’ll grind equal amounts of beef and pork, then run them together through increasingly finer blades until they are nearly a paste. The last two grinds or so, I’ll add some kidney fat (I can get that here in Siberia With a View, can’t you?) and some salt pork. Into the final grind will go egg yolks, onion, savory and salt and pepper. I’ll form the mix in a loaf pan and bake for an hour or so in a bain marie at about 350.
Once its done, I’ll cool it and slice a bit, for a taste test.
Then, as we say around the Sczbrg house: Letzcs z eyytt!