Poland has a distinctive cuisine that is basically Slavic with Baltic overtones and has been influenced by the country's pivotal crossroads position and turbulent history. The Poles have an enduring affinity for particular foods -- grains, dairy and poultry products, game, fish and tuber vegetables. None has been more highly regarded, however, than the mushroom, both wild and cultivated.
Wild mushrooms, members of the fungi family which are believed to have been the first plants to appear on earth, have long been regarded with awe and superstition, associated with religions, and believed to possess supernatural powers.
Seeing them appear almost magically overnight, the ancients believed that they were created by lightning bolts from the heavens. The Greeks called them "food of the gods." Julius Caesar decreed the common man unworthy of the "treasures." In Europe upper-class diners developed an inordinate taste for the more delicate species such as cepes, morels and chanterelles.
A wild variety of excellent wild mushrooms have appeared for centuries in Poland's vast shady forests and are still picked in great quantities during the long season. At family mushroom expeditions, which are actually rural social events, children have been traditionally taught by their parents how to identify various species and how to distinguish between edible and poisonous varieties. Even young people meet to go mushroom picking as a popular pastime.
Baskets full of mushrooms are brought home to be freshly cooked or dried in the sun and strung on cords to hang as decorations in the kitchen to be used during the winter.
Dried Polish mushrooms are also exported around the world and are sought-after delicacies. They are various shades of yellow or brown and have a dark shriveled appearance. Their inviting aroma and concentrated flavor is particularly treasured and a few will go a long way. They are especially good in soups, stews and sauces.
Polish mushrooms are sold in American specialty food stores but are very expensive. To prepare, they must be washed in cold water and then soaked in lukewarm water to cover in a non-metal container for 20 to 30 minutes. Drain and squeeze dry before using and reserve the liquid for soups and other dishes.
The method of cultivating mushrooms originated in France in the 17th century during the reign of Louis XIV and the fame of the new white or tan fungi spread to Poland where they were also grown in considerable quantity. Fresh cultivated mushrooms are exported as delicacies throughout Europe.
While Poles consider wild mushrooms, whose flavor is more distinctive and stronger, superior to cultivated ones, cooks use both kinds with amazing versatility in grzby (mushroom) dishes. It is a rare meal that does not include them.
Most Polish cookbooks have separate chapters devoted to mushrooms. They are picked, stuffed, baked, deep-fried, creamed, made into cutlets, used in salads, stuffings, as fillings for pancakes, dumplings and pastries, and in grain and pasta puddings. Mushrooms enhance poultry, meat, game and fish dishes. Excellent mushroom sauces can be seasoned with wine, paprika, herbs or tomatoes. They are favorites in both clear and creamy soups, made with sweet or sour cream, and perhaps flavored with dill.
Given below are three good Polish mushroom recipes. BARLEY-MUSHROOM SOUP (8 servings) 3 ounces dried mushrooms 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped 1 leek, white part only, cleaned and chopped 1 celery stalk, chopped 3 tablespoons butter or margarine 1/2 cup pearl barley 2 quarts beef bouillon Salt, pepper to taste 1/2 cup sour cream, at room temperature About 1/4 cup chopped fresh dill or parsley
Wash mushrooms in cold water. Soak in lukewarm water to cover in a small bowl 20 minutes. Drain, pressing to extract any water. Reserve liquid. Slice mushrooms. Saute onion, leek and celery in heated butter or margarine in a large saucepan until onion is tender. Add barley and saute 1 minute. Add bouillon and reserved liquid. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, covered, 1 hour. Add mushrooms and continue to cook about 30 minutes, until barley is tender. Stir in sour cream and leave on low heat long enough to heat through. Serve garnished with dill or parsley. POLISH MUSHROOM APPETIZERS (4 servings) 1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped 3 tablespoons butter or margarine 2 teaspoons paprika 1 pound thickly sliced cleaned fresh mushrooms 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour 2 tablespoons light cream or milk Salt, pepper to taste 1 cup sour cream, at room temperature Rye bread slices About 1/4 cup chopped fresh dill or parsley
Saute onion in heated butter in a medium saucepan or skillet until tender. Stir in paprika. Cook several seconds. Add mushrooms and saute 4 minutes. Stir in flour; blend well. Add cream or milk.Season with salt and pepper. Stir in sour cream. Serve warm, spooned onto squares of rye bread and sprinkled with dill or parsley. BAKED MUSHROOMS (4 servings) 1 pound fresh mushrooms 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 1/3 cup chopped scallions, with some tops About 1/3 cup butter or margarine 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese 1/2 cup sour cream, at room temperature Fine dry breadcrumbs
Clean mushrooms by wiping with wet paper toweling or rinsing quickly. Cut off any tough stem ends. Slice thickly. Saute with lemon juice and scallions in heated butter or margarine 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in flour and cook slowly, stirring, 1 minute. Spoon into a shallow baking dish. Combine cheese and sour cream; pour over mushroom mixture. Sprinkle with bread crumbs; dot with butter or margarine. Bake in preheated 425 degree oven about 12 minutes, until bubbly and golden.