"This sauerkraut -- I can't believe it," I was saying. "Not only am I eating it, but I'm actually liking it!" TJ wore an "I told you so" smirk. "That's because it's not sour and it's not 'Kraut.' Poles don't pickle and boil their sauerkraut like Germans, they brine and saute it. Not like anything you've tasted before, huh?"
It was TJ's turn to pick a restaurant. "I want you to learn about my Grandma's cooking," he said, "and this cold rainy weather is just right for it." So we headed for Old Krakow, the city's only Polish restaurant, open a little under four years. En route we gathered up Steve and Dawn, who live near the restaurant and have eaten there before. It proved a comfortable, very European room in West Portal, its walls hung with original paintings by several Polish artists in various modern styles and moods. The owners (who wait the tables in gracious fashion) are an attractive couple probably in their 30s; they brought their separate art collections when they emigrated from Krakow, before meeting each other here. A charmingly random assortment of big, antique-looking tables and carved wooden chairs are so widely spaced, we could actually hear each other's conversation and barely a syllable of the neighbors'. A big green stuffed dragon grinned from a table in a rear alcove: Krakow's name mythically derives from local hero, Krak, who founded the city around 700 A.D. by slaying a dragon that lived in a cave under the town's hilltop castle. Dragon-free Krakow flourished to become the political and cultural capital of medieval Poland.
Steve and Dawn are vegetarians (of the lacto-ovo-pisceo- persuasion), which made ordering just a bit problematic, given that the Polish word for "vegetables" (wloszczyzna -- hey, easy for you to say!) literally means "Italian things." Apparently, aside from cabbage and beets, the Poles didn't eat greenery until a 16th-century Italian princess married the Polish king and brought her homeland's fare into fashion. Old Krakow, though, serves several vegetarian dishes, asterisking them on the menu. No Italian influence was needed to inspire the Polish passion for forest fungi, so we began with a big bowl of Dawn's favorite Old Krakow dish, cream of mushroom soup ($3.50/$6). Banish the Campbell's version from your mind: This was one addictive big-flavored bowlful. Domestic and nameless wild mushrooms, some minced fine and others coarsely chopped, lent their heaven-in-earthiness to a deep, velvety broth smoothed with a luxuriance of sour cream.
The omnivore/reviewer faction had to order appetizer plates of house-made kielbasa ($5) and sauerkraut ($3), to get pristine tastes of elements that would play vital parts in other dishes. The sauerkraut was a revelation: In superfine shreds, it was pungent without being sour, and bore a subtle aroma of the saute medium -- goose fat. (No wonder I loved it!) TJ, the Quiet Man, was finally in his element, explaining ancestral cooking traditions.
"My grandmother, who was well into her 90s when she died in 1983, came from Poland at age 15 as a mail-order bride," he related. "Her parents had more or less sold her to my grandfather, a much older German homesteader on a large farm in a Polish-German community in Minnesota. She was none too happy about it, but she was stuck with him. Grandma would never make the sour cabbage that Grandpa wanted, German sauerkraut. Her version was sweet like this; she even included a little sugar.
"She taught all us kids to make it," TJ continued. "When I had my ranch, we made sauerkraut every fall and canned it. You core and shred 10 heads of cabbage, and throw them into a straight-sided tub, like a 5-gallon paint can. You cover the cabbage with a salt brine, and drape the top with enough cheesecloth to hang well down over the sides. Then you cover the cheesecloth with a flat plate that just fits inside the crock, and weight that down with a brick -- it keeps the cabbage submerged in the liquid; otherwise a lot will float on top and the batch will spoil instead of curing.
"You put the crock in the cellar or on a cold back porch -- someplace you won't smell it! -- and twice a day, every 12 hours, you skim the stinky scum from the top of the cabbage. The cheesecloth absorbs the scum; you can just lift it and rinse it out instead of standing there skimming.
"After five days, the kids used to dip in and steal hunks of it, half-fermented, but if you wait 10 days, you get sweet Polish sauerkraut -- not the German kind you buy in the markets, which gets additional processing with vinegar."
The subtly seasoned house-made kielbasa tasted cured but not smoked, its meat coarser-ground than the emulsified commercial version (Hillshire Farms, for example). "Grandma used to make her own kielbasa, too," TJ said, "using a hand meat-grinder attached to a corner of the table, with the fine grinding plate in it. It was her kids' job to crank the grinder, and then she'd season the pork. Her neighbors had pig intestines to use as sausage skins, so she'd turn the mixture over to them, and they'd make it into links for her, keeping some sausage for themselves in exchange. Another neighbor would make blood sausages for the whole community when the hogs were slaughtered in the fall. Grandma refused to make those because she couldn't stand the smell."
Three of us also loved the crisp cucumber salad ($4) with sour cream, dill, and fresh scallion. TJ, however, complained that his grandmother's version was better. "My grandparents were part of a dairy farm co-op," he explained. "You ever see those big stainless-steel milk cans? A yellowish cream about as thick as creme fraiche would rise to the top of them, and it was my grandmother's job to skim that off. People wanted milk or butter, but nobody wanted that top layer -- that creme de la creme -- so if you left it on, it would bring down the price of your milk. That's what Grandma used in her cucumber salad, instead of sour cream. This is watery in comparison." But the rest of us liked it plenty.