"That Poland could have held on to its customs, traditions and cuisines through . . . repeated and often violent transmutations can be attributed only to the indomitable Polish spirit -- a fiesty, nationalistic spirit nourished by the Roman Catholic Church . . . It has been the religious spirit of the Poles -- their souls, if you will -- that has kept the Polish cuisine and its character alive. The elaborate ceremonials of the Church . . . still play a prominent role in the lives of the Poles and what they eat. " -- From Time-Life's "A Quintet of Cuisines"
THE WORLD'S first Polish Pope is reported to "like all Polish food," which means he should like just about everything. Poland stands at the crossroads of the East and West and so does its culinary heritage.
According to one of this city's leading Polish cooks, Bogumil Kosciesza, whose friends call him Bob, "Polish cuisine comes from three roots: Italian and French and the Eastern land routes." Traders from the Middle East passed through Poland which Kosciesza explained is the reason "curry is a very ancient and popular seasoning in Poland," along with onions and dill and sour cream and dried mushrooms and on and on.
Kosciesza had his first encounter with cooking at the age of four and it has been a lifelong love affair. Unlike other European countries where women were in charge of the household, in Poland "the Lord of the Manor" was concerned with the servants and the kitchen. So Kosciesza's father "was often in the kitchen." Because he cared about what he ate, he had a lot to say about how it was cooked. Kosciesza's family was part of the landed nobility, one of the country's original 50 families. The first mention of their name occured in the 10th century and a reminder of Kosciesza's noble roots, a small family coat of arms, hangs on the living room wall in the family's modest Silver Spring home.
Ten years ago when Kosciesza's English-born wife, Ida, whom he met when both were students at the University of London, went back to work full time, he took over the cooking chores. It's a perfect arrangement because he loves it and she hates it and there are 11 mouths to feed.
But Ida Kosciesza has been in the kitchen this week because her husband has been covering the Pope's visit for the Catholic review, Commonweal, to which he is a frequent contributor. If John Paul had craved a good Polish meal when he arrived in Washington, he could have found one at the Koscieszas.
The Pope is known to like the traditional dishes of southern Poland where he was born -- a variety of sausages, light clear soups such as beet soup or barszcz and pierogi, little filled dumplings. He is described as "not a fussy eater, but he likes to eat light."
Last week Kosciesza, who is an analytical chemist and historian as well as a writer, treated a group of friends to an elaborate Polish dinner, typical of a late evening meal served when there are guests. Some of John Paul's favorite foods were included.
According to Kosciesza there are five different meals each day in Poland: the first breakfast is Continental style; the second breakfast at about 11 is like high tea. Then comes a three-course dinner between 2 and 5 in the afternoon; evening tea of cookies and cakes at 6 or 7, and finally a full supper late in the evening.
Kosciesza began the evening feast with an hors d'oeuvre (przystawki) table of nine different sausages. This required a trip to a Polish neighborhood in Baltimore where pigs feet and wild boar pate also were purchased. Even though there may be as many as 50,000 Polish-Americans in this area, Kosciesza says there is no place to buy Polish specialities.
The hors d'oeuvre table was also laden with steak tartare, Kosciesza had seasoned with rum, Polish marinated mushrooms and pickles, assorted breads, butter, mustard and horseradish as well as what is known as the Polish national dish, bigos.
All of these delicacies were washed down with a choice of two Polish vodkas, one strong, the other stronger.
Kosciesza demonstrated for his inexperienced guests how the ice-cold drink should be consumed -- straight down the gullet without swallowing, so that the searing liquid doesn't touch the throat! "Otherwise," Kosciesza explained, "it would choke you." Kosciesza is still smarting over his defeat in a vodka drinking contest during World War II by a British brigadier general. Kosciesza, who was with the Polish underground as a youth, later served with the British Army. The British brigadier bested Kosciesza's 11 shots of vodka.
Vodka, however, is not the national drink of Poland: It is beer. Poland has no wines of its own, so wines imported from Hungary usually are served with a meal.
Two Hungarian wines accompanied the main course, but in honor of the Pope there was also a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape, 1970.
Kosciesza's beet soup, which is strained through a cloth to make it crystal clear like a double consomme, followed the hors d'oeuvres. It was served with uszka, tiny dumplings filled with wild mushrooms and onions. Called "little ears," the doug is folded to resemble the shape of a bishop's hat, with "ears."
Veal birds stuffed with bread crumbs, shallots and butter, followed the soup. They were accompanied by whole buckwheat groats, kasza and the beets from the soup. They had been sauteed in butter, seasoned with lemon juice and mixed with creme fraiche. If you haven't got creme fraiche, Kosciesza says sour cream may be substituted.
Ordinarily, Kosciesza would have served cauliflower polonaise (cauliflower coated with bread crumbs fried in butter) to provide a white color to go with the red beets and thereby represent the Polish national colors. But with the confusion of picture taking and considerable conversation, the cauliflower was "omitted because it got overcooked."
Polish colors were carried out in the flowers on the table along with white and yellow carnations in honor of John Paul. "In Poland you do nothing without flowers," Ida Kosciesza explained. "Even in the ruins of Warsaw after the bombing with people living in the rubble there is a picture of a woman selling flowers."
Two vodkas and three wines later, it was time for Old Polish Coffee, which makes Irish coffee seem like kid's stuff. It begins with hot, heavy Turkish-type brew, sugared and flavored with cinnamon and cloves, orange liqueur or orange vodka and dark rum. Each cup is covered with sweetened whipped cream and sprinkled with nutmeg which disguise its potency.
Then there were Polish honey chocolate cookies, called piernik, and finally homemade krupnik, a meadbased liquer brandy made with honey. Kosciesza says it is basically the same as Drambuie but serving it warm makes it seem far more powerful.
Each guest who is served krupnik by the Koscieszas receives a card, embossed with the family crest, and a note warning the drinker that krupnik has the unique virture of fortifying friends and felling enemies. It is said the first goblet takes the feet away, the second renders unconscious and the third restores all the faculties."
Krupnik recipes are closely guarded family secrets. This one has been handed down for centuries among the Koscieszas.
One Polish cookbook translates krupnik as fire vodka.That's close enough.
Some of Kosciesza's recipes follow. VEAL BIRDS 1 1/2 pounds veal loin sliced on a bias across the grain (or veal scallopini or entrecote), beaten thin 1 1/2 ounces butter for searing Flour for dusting the birds Stuffing: 2 ounces finely chopped shallots 2 ounces fine French bread crumbs (without crust) 1 ounce sweet butter 4 ounces mushrooms sliced fairly coarsely Creme fraiche or sour cream Salt, pepper to taste Water, chicken stock, or sauterne for simmering
Make the stuffing by mixing together the shallots, bread crumbs and butter and spread on the meat pieces. Roll the birds, dust with flour and sear them quickly on all sides. Place the birds fairly tightly at the bottom of a pan. Saute the mushrooms in the same fat as the birds, deglaze with a little water, lean chicken stock or sauterne. Pour over the birds. Add more liquid (about a cup -- not quite enough to qquite cover the birds) if necessary. Simmer very gently tightly covered until the birds are soft (45 minutes.) Replace liquid as needed. When ready, remove birds and thicken the sauce with creme fraiche, serve immediately. BORSCHT (8 servings) For the ferment: 2 pounds beets, peeled, washed and sliced thin 4 cups water, booled for 10 minutes and cooled to mild temperature 1 walnut-sized piece of sour dough or a crust of black bread The soup: 1 1/2 pounds lean beef, in cubes 1 onion 2 dried Polish or Italian mushrooms 8 to 10 beets, scrubbed 3 carrots, washed 1 parsnip, washed 3 leeks, washed 4 ribs celery, broken in half 1 celery root, quartered 1 small bunch of fresh parsley, washed and tied 2 teaspoons salt 6 cups water 10 peppercorns 1 bay leaf 2 cloves garlic, pressed
Make the ferment three or four days in advance. Store sliced beets in a wide-mouthed container, add water and dough, cover loosely with cheesecloth. Set in a warm place. After four days, strain it through a cheesecloth.Two or three lots of the mixture may be made with the same beets, and may be kept for several months in a refrigerator in strong, corked and wired bottles.
The borscht has to be clear and red. Cover all the soup ingredients (except the sausage and garlic) with water and boil until the beets are soft, about 1 hour. Strain the stock.
Pick out and reserve the mushrooms, beets and meat. Peel cooked beets. Slice them and return to broth. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes. Strain out beets and discard. Cool the liquid to set fat. Remove the fat layer. Put the Polish sausage and pressed garlic in the broth. Heat but do not boil. Beat 1 egg white into 4 cups of the ferment. Stir the ferment into the hot soup and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove sausage. Strain borscht through a linen towel to clarify it. Taste and adjust flavor with -- lemon ro cranberry juice. The borscht should be tart.
Serve with mushroom ears. MUSHROOM EARS (8 servings) Dough: 2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour 3 egg yolks Few teaspoons water Filling: 3 ounces Polish dried mushrooms 2 onions chopped fine 4 tablespoons butter 3 tablespoons bread crumbs 1 teaspoon chopped parsley 3 egg whites, slightly beaten 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon salt
Soak mushrooms overnight in 4 cups of water. Simmer for 1 hour. Cool. Strain the liquid and reserve for kasza. Chop the mushrooms very fine.
Saute mushrooms and onions in butter until onions are transparent. Mix well with rest of filling ingredients. Combine ingredients for dough, turn onto a lightly floured board and knead a few minutes until dough is smooth (noodle dough consistency). Roll out thin, about 1/8 of an inch, and cut into 3-inch squares.
Place a teaspoonful of filling in the center of each square and fold over the dough to form a triangle. Press the edges to seal. Bring together the two corners of the long side and press together to form a ring. Drop gently into a large pan of boiling salted water and boil until the rings float, about 20 minutes. Remove with care. Serve in soup.