Polish comfort food from my babcia’s kitchen

My Polish grandmother immigrated from Zwierzyniec, Poland as a child; she came from a long line of great cooks (her mother, my great-grandmother, was a cook for wealthy Jewish families in Poland). I fondly remember her making pierogi, kapusta, golumpki, borscht (especially for Easter), poppyseed rolls, pierog (buckwheat-filled pastry crust) and other baked goods.

Sadly, I never learned to cook these classics with her, and she did not tend to write down Polish recipes (although she saved a silver Jacobson’s box full to the brim of magazine and newspaper clippings with recipes she was interested in trying; I used to love poring over them as a child and the box is now in my family’s possession after her passing).

She always used to cook up massive batches of kapusta, sauerkraut baked with yellow split peas. This is comfort food at its best! The sauerkraut becomes silky and mellow.

Here is our family’s recipe for kapusta (sauerkraut with split peas), we traditionally had this at Christmas:

Sauerkraut (Kapusta)

8 lbs. Sauerkraut, squeezed (do not rinse)

Cover with water and simmer on stove.

Cook 2 lbs. of yellow split peas. Mash when softened.

Sautee 2 large sweet onions until soft. Add 1/3 cup flour – mix well. Continue cooking until thickened. 3 beef boulion cubes, ¾ lb. melted butter. Add the above ingredients to simmering sauerkraut.

Add brown sugar (2-3 tablespoons). Bake in 325 degree oven 2 ½ – 3 hours.

Another classic comfort food is Bigos, Hunters’ Stew. This one is courtesy of the Chicago Sun Times circa 1982:

Bigos (from 1982 Chicago Sun-Times)Time: about 3 hours

3 pounds sauerkraut

2 pounds cabbage (discard tough outer leaves), cored and remainder shredded

6 dried mushrooms, cut into bits

2 pounds pork, veal, or any leftover meat

Oil or fat

2 pounds kielbasa

3 small minced onions

6 tablespoons flour

10 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup dry red wine

½ cup vodka

Salt and pepper to taste

Combine sauerkraut and cabbage in large pot. Simmer with a little water (about 1 to 2 cups) until tender, about 45 minutes. Stir and add mushroom bits. Meanwhile, cut meat into small pieces and discard any bones or fat. Heat 3 to 4 tablespoons oil in medium size skillet and brown meat on both sides. Set aside.

Peel and dice kielbasa and set aside. Add a little more oil or fat to skillet and cook onions until light brown. Stirring, add flour and stir constantly until flour is incorporated and mixture is nicely browned. Add meats, kielbasa, tomato paste and onion mixture to cabbage and sauerkraut. Stir and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover. Bring to boil on low heat, then reduce to simmer and cook until meat is tender.  Stir occasionally. If mixture seems dry, add a little water or beef stock. This will take 1 to 2 hours to cook. Remove from stove. Let mixture cool to 150 degrees. Stirring, add wine and vodka. Cover and let simmer until guests are ready to eat. Serves 10.

Smacznego! (Bon appetit!)


One Comment Add yours

  1. A_Boleyn says:

    How fortunate that you’ve found the recipes you remember so fondly in your cookbooks. My mother never wrote any of her Yugoslavian/Romanian recipes down either.

    Having come to Canada at 7yrs of age as an immigrant with my parents, I embraced the Canadian lifestyle and cuisine enthusiastically. I liked a number of the dishes my mother cooked but I was never interested in learning to cook the dishes myself. And, when I finally started developing an interest in cooking, it seemed that I cooked every OTHER cuisine rather than the unique amalgam found in Yugoslavia … Turkish, Austrian, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Russian and even French. From my Italian neighbours, I was inspired to cook THAT cuisine.

    Regrettably, now that I am feeling nostalgic for the foods my mom cooked, she’s no longer around to teach me her cooking secrets so I’m looking for them on the internet. Of course, in the interim, I’m also running across Japanese, Thai/Vietnamese, South American, Tex-Mex etc recipes that catch my interest. 🙂


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