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World Chefs: In Polish cooking emphasis is on freshness

NEW YORK, Feb 5 (Reuters) - When Marianna Dworak, the author of "Authentic Polish Cooking" was growing up in Poland, planning a holiday feast meant having to get ingredients well ahead of time.
/ Source: Reuters

NEW YORK, Feb 5 (Reuters) - When Marianna Dworak, the author of "Authentic Polish Cooking" was growing up in Poland, planning a holiday feast meant having to get ingredients well ahead of time.

The emphasis on freshness was so strong that one year Dworak's family kept a carp, a fish traditionally served on Christmas Eve, alive in the bathtub for a week until it was time to cook it.

Dworak learned her culinary skills from her late mother, whose hand-written recipes were passed down in a binder that served as the inspiration for her book.

It includes recipes for some unusual dishes, such as pickle soup, as well as more familiar ones like mushroom-stuffed cabbage leaves and potato pierogies, or dumplings.

Dworak said she was responding to a scarcity of Polish cookbooks in English, although that appears to be ending. Her book was published within weeks of a competing tome, Anne Applebaum's "From a Polish Country House Kitchen."

Dworak spoke with Reuters about her family legacy, her approach to cooking, and that one trapped fish.

Q: How did you learn to cook?

A: "I'm not a trained chef. In Poland, you pick up things without even meaning to. My mom always taught us to take our time so at the end you have the best results. This book is kind of a tribute to her. We have binders of all her handwritten recipes."

Q: Polish food has a reputation for being a little heavy. Can you win over health-conscious eaters?

A: "I wouldn't say it's heavy, but you're always full after a meal. It's rich food. You'd think there's a lot of butter and carbs, but it's not unhealthy. It uses fresh ingredients. Fresh mushrooms are in a lot of recipes."

Q: Poland's been called 'the heart of Europe.' Do you see a lot of international influence on its food?

A: "We definitely borrow from all around us. Rice is very common even though it's not traditionally Polish. You just (combine) cuisines. I feel like rice with fruit is very Polish. Not a lot of nationalities eat that. I think cooking shouldn't be too strict."

Q: Your book dedicates a whole section to holiday foods. What are your memories of Christmas in Poland?

A: "I have an anecdote. It's traditional for Polish Christmas to have carp. but you have to get it a week in advance because everyone buys it. When I was little, because we wanted the freshest possible fish, my mom bought a live fish but we had to keep it alive. So we filled a bathtub with water and this huge carp just lived there for a week. We couldn't shower or anything."

Q: Is the bigos (hunter's stew) only a holiday dish?

A: "No. I've had it at picnics. It definitely is filling and hearty and represents Polish cuisine. You think it's a tough recipe but it's really not. You just mix everything in a big pot and cook it for two hours. I've always added things that I think will taste good, so if you add both prunes and mushrooms, that's fine."

Hunter's Stew (Bigos)

2 oz (56g) dried or fresh mushrooms

1 cabbage head

1/2 lb (225g) beef

1/2 lb (225g) pork

1/2 lb (225g) kielbasa (Polish sausage)

1-2 onions

1/4 lb (115g) bacon

24 oz (680g) sauerkraut, rinsed

Dried herbs: oregano, bay leaf, thyme

Salt and pepper

Optional: 2 apples, prunes, 1 cup broth, 1 cup wine

1. If using dried mushrooms or prunes, soak them overnight.

2. Dice the cabbage head, cut the beef and pork into small cubes, and boil in water until soft. If using fresh mushrooms, chop them and add at the end of cooking time. Drain the water.

3. Dice the onions and bacon and fry on a skillet until lightly browned.

4. In a large pot, mix the boiled cabbage, beef, pork, sliced kielbasa, rinsed sauerkraut, fried bacon and onions, chopped mushrooms and prunes, herbs, salt and pepper and cook on medium heat for about an hour, stirring occasionally. You can optionally add diced or roughly grated apples, or some broth or wine for taste.

This dish can be made in a number of ways. You can make it without the cabbage, only using the sauerkraut, and you can use any combination of meats. You can also fry the meat and mushrooms instead of cooking in water. (Editing by Patricia Reaney and Mohammad Zargham)