There are, obviously, other foods that might seem more distinct or interesting to the foreign audience, such as buckwheat groats, sauerkraut or foraged mushrooms, but it’s the humble spud that’s at the core of an infinite number of traditional and regional dishes.
Hard times, desperate measures
Bolesława Kawecka-Starmachowa (1902-1965) was a biologist, an expert in botany and mycology. She spent most of her career working as a lecturer at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. And it’s in Kraków where, during the Second World War, the Central Welfare Council – one of the very few Polish social organisations allowed to operate under the Nazi German Occupation – published a series of home economics guides. It was entitled Radź Sam Sobie (editor’s translation: Take Care of Yourself) and included practical advice on many different topics. It comprised volumes on how to create homemade glues, how to remove stains, heat the house, breed canaries and fish in small ponds (the latter written by Bolesława’s husband, also a distinguished biologist, Karol Starmach). Essentially – how to live a reasonably normal life in the most difficult of times.
Food was obviously one of the most important subjects and a number of books were dedicated to how to grow it, how to preserve it and how not to waste it. For example. Zofia Piechowa wrote a book on how to pickle, preserve and cook vegetables (Potrawy z Jarzyn. W Tym Obiady Jednodaniowe oraz Kiszenie i Konserwowanie Jarzyn, 1941) and another on how to make sixty dishes out of cabbage (60 Potraw z Kapusty, 1940). Potatoes turned out to be even more versatile.
100 ways to eat a potato
Bolesława Starmachowa started with a short introduction on the nutritional value and preservation of potatoes, but what is most interesting are the recipes, divided into categories (including soups, salads, meat dishes, vegetarian dishes, sauces and desserts and in alphabetical order).
Some of them are well-known to a modern reader: potato soup (kartoflanka), potato salads (with pickles, eggs and mayo or with herring), mashed potatoes, pierogi ruskie with potatoes and cheese as well as crispy placki ziemniaczane (potato pancakes), all of which can still be found on Polish tables today.
Other ideas seem more exotic or at least old fashioned: herring stuffed with potatoes seems normal enough at first glance, but the author advises to put the potato, herring and apple mixture on the plate in the shape of a fish and then decorate it with herring heads and tails. Potato sauce made with caramel, lemon juice and tomato seems quite unconventional as does potato legumina – a dessert resembling the better-known budyń (a thick variety of custard made with milk, sugar, potato starch and flavourings such as vanilla or chocolate) – which is made with mashed potatoes, eggs, sugar and breadcrumbs.
Some methods and ingredients can raise an eyebrow: many recipes involve making a roux (zasmażka) which is now common only among more traditional cooks, in others swede appears – a vegetable now pretty much forgotten (although, maybe it will make a comeback just as kale did) – others include mutton, which isn’t usually associated with Polish cuisine.
Resourcefulness was essential, so the author offered advice on what to do with yesterday’s roast or scraps of ham; even the simplest recipes can be even more simplified, according to the availability of ingredients: potato soup with vegetables can be made... without the vegetables, only with dill; stock can be substituted with water; it’s cheaper to make a mayonnaise with a roux as a base instead of achieving creaminess through adding lots of oil; potatoes can substitute half the meat in a pâté.
The list of ingredients in the whole book might seem short and the dishes repetitive – we see lots of recipes using mushrooms, herring and cabbage – but it’s actually really impressive, how much the author manages to do with such a limited pantry. Let’s take a look at two recipes which seem like a good bet for anyone today cooking on a tight budget:
Tasty potato salad
Dice 1 kg of boiled new potatoes, mix with 5 spoons of cooked vegetables (kohlrabi, carrot, cauliflower), add 2 spoons of boiled peas, 2 finely chopped hard-boiled eggs and mix with mayonnaise made with or without oil.
Want to make mayo without oil? Make a light roux out of a spoon of fresh butter and a teaspoon of flour, add cold water to the pan and, when it cools down a bit, add a teaspoon of mustard, 1-2 raw egg yolks, lemon juice, salt and sugar to taste, and mix thoroughly.
Cabbage rolls (gołąbki) with potatoes
Shred one part of raw potatoes on a grater, drain off excess water, add 1/3 of boiled potatoes, fried onions, salt and pepper, mix thoroughly and put the mix into leaves of sauerkraut, place tightly into a saucepan, cover with hot water and bake in an oven. The next day, when they set, fry them.
The salad, as we can see, is a variation of what is known abroad as Russian salad or salad Olivier, using kohlrabi – another underestimated vegetable – while cabbage rolls filled with potatoes are actually a regional dish from South-East Poland. Also, babka ziemniaczana – a type of potato bake with onions and bacon – and potato blini are Eastern specialities, delicious but time-consuming and rarely made at home anymore.
Today, when Polish cooks have access to a wide variety of ingredients from all over the world, they don’t really have to substitute anything with anything, and – just as in Western countries – don’t necessarily think about waste as much as they should. Also, even though the potato still reigns in most Polish homes, many recipes are forgotten and we now usually limit ourselves to boiling, mashing, baking and frying them...
Old recipe collections, such as Starmachowa’s 1942 cookbook, can serve as an inspiration and a reminder of just how much you can do with the humble spud!
Written by Natalia Mętrak-Ruda, June 2017