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Beautiful cookbook proves Polish food is more than perogies and potatoes

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Recently there's been talk about the rise of Internet cooking, a trend that sees more and more people getting their recipes from websites, food blogs, YouTube videos and apps.

So far, cookbook sales have been holding their own, but the prosaic, purely functional coil-bound variety is probably on the way out. The cookbooks that will survive will be the ones that offer more than just information. The ones that are workhorses in the kitchen but elegant enough for the coffee table. The ones with gorgeous visuals and meaningful text.

From a Polish Country House Kitchen: 90 Recipes for the Ultimate Comfort Food (Chronicle Books, 287 pages, $45) fits the bill.

Anne Applebaum, a political columnist for the Washington Post and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction book Gulag: A History, and Danielle Crittenden, a Canadian-born journalist who works for Huffington Post, have crafted a well-researched, beautifully photographed and profoundly affectionate introduction to Polish food.

When Crittenden and Applebaum first told people they were writing about Polish cooking, the two friends endured a lot of jokes about boiled potatoes. And, yes, there are potatoes here. There are also lots of delicious, unpretentious dishes made from simple, fresh ingredients that are deeply rooted in the land and its seasons.

In chronicling the resurgence of Poland's culinary scene, the book also covers the larger history of the country's rebirth after the collapse of the Soviet empire. For Applebaum, who is married to Radislaw Sikorski, Poland's foreign affairs minister, this story was embodied by a ruined rural manor house near Bydgoszcz, bought for a song by her family just after the collapse of communist rule and then gradually, lovingly restored.

It was during years of renovations that Applebaum learned to cook with what was on hand. That meant beets and dill, venison and boar, raspberries and rhubarb, prunes and root vegetables. There are evocative visuals of the house and gardens, the surrounding countryside and local open-air markets.

And then there is the food itself. Many of these dishes go back centuries, but they have been lightened and modernized, made simpler and more accessible for North American cooks. Crittenden and Applebaum have left out recipes for tripe and duck blood soup, for example, which might have limited appeal outside of Poland. They do include recipes for herring and sturgeon, borscht and venison stew, homemade jams and pickles, poppy seed cake and Easter almond tortes.

And, of course, there are perogies. There must be perogies, with potato, cheese and bacon filling, but also with truffles and brown butter and duck and red cabbage.

Crittenden and Applebaum use food to examine history and culture. A recipe for mushrooms is an opportunity for a disquisition on the importance of mushroom-picking in Slavic cultures, where a journey into the fields and forests could be a romantic outing for lovers or a rousing exercise for Communist-era factory workers.

These days, mushroom-picking is still a passionate Polish pursuit, with websites offering constantly updated maps on the best sites. In introducing their recipe for wild mushrooms, the authors warn that these aren't the lightly sautéed mushrooms of Italy or France. Instead, they are boiled -- twice! -- and then cooked with cream to become "meltingly soft, mild, and woodsy at the same time."

With good writing, good pictures and -- crucially -- good food, this is the kind of cookbook that encourages sentimental attachment. It's the kind that you love more as time goes by and the pages become butter-smeared and wavy with kitchen use.

Even in the age of Internet cooking, this cookbook is a keeper.


Cabbage rolls are among the many popular Polish dishes that get a modern touch.

Enlarge Image

Cabbage rolls are among the many popular Polish dishes that get a modern touch. (DEB LINDSEY / BLOOMBERG / THE WASHINGTON POST)

Twice-cooked wild mushrooms

455 g (1 lb) mixed fresh wild mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed (see note)

30 ml (2 tbsp) unsalted butter

1 small onion, peeled and minced

60 ml (1/4 cup) sour cream

60 ml (1/4 cup or 10 g) chopped fresh dill

Salt and freshly ground pepper


Cut off the very bottom of each mushroom's stem. Chop the mushrooms roughly into chunks.

Put the mushrooms into a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, remove from the heat, drain, and rinse. Cover with fresh water, bring to a boil a second time, and continue boiling for at least 20 minutes, until the mushroom caps and stems are completely soft. Drain the mushrooms, and strain the broth through cheesecloth if you would like to use it for another purpose.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan or sauté pan over medium heat. Add the minced onion, cook for 1 minute, and add the mushrooms. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and the mushrooms lightly browned. Add the sour cream and dill, stir well for another minute, sprinkle with salt and several good grinds of pepper, and serve immediately.

(Note: To clean wild mushrooms, use the edge of the blade of a paring knife to scrape off the thin outer layer of dirt, or use a soft vegetable brush. Mushrooms aren't usually washed as that makes them hard to dry, and they also deteriorate more quickly.)

Source: From a Polish Country House Kitchen


Tester's notes: I'm not a mushroom picker -- and please don't start picking wild mushrooms unless you really know what you're doing! -- but these days you can get some fairly good approximations of wild Polish mushrooms at a specialty grocery or even a supermarket with a well-stocked produce section. Porcini mushrooms are closely related to the Borowiki, a Polish favourite. I got nice results with a mix of porcini, portobello and oyster mushrooms. Dill, a favourite summer herb in Polish cooking, adds a fresh, green note.


Twice cooked wild mushrooms

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Twice cooked wild mushrooms (WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

Red cabbage with cranberries

1 large head red cabbage

45 ml (3 tbsp) unsalted butter

125 ml (1/2 cup) dry red wine

175 ml (3/4 cup) chicken stock

1 ml (1/4 tsp) ground cloves

15 ml (1 tbsp) all-purpose flour

60 ml (1/4 cup or 30 g) dried cranberries

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Salt and freshly ground pepper


Core the cabbage and chop roughly.

In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, melt 15 ml (1 tbsp) of the butter over medium heat and cook the cabbage until softened, but do not brown (or it will become bitter). Add the wine, chicken stock, and cloves. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes; the cabbage should be tender.

Melt the remaining 30 ml (2 tbsp) butter (you can do this in a small bowl in the microwave) and mix in the flour to create a paste. Stir it into the cabbage, add the cranberries, and continue to cook on low heat, stirring occasionally, for another 10 minutes, until everything is tender and thickened. Add the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Source: From a Polish Country House Kitchen

Tester's notes: Simple but good, with humble cabbage getting a boost from wine, cloves and a splash of lemon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 20, 2013 D1


Updated on Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 4:09 PM CST: Corrects main cutline

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