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A Very Polish Review

Several weeks ago Lindz found a Groupon for Nye’s Polonaise, the premier Polish restaurant here in the Cities.  Which is located in the Nordeast section of Minneapolis (you know, where the Polacks have lived for generations).  I’ve been itching to go there for years.  The urge gets worse when I’m working out in the western ‘burbs because I drive right by Nye’s on the way home.  Anyway, the Groupon was getting close to expiration, so we made plans to make a date night out of it.  After the usual bit of “What time do you want to go?”/”I don’t know, what time where you thinking of going?” we decided that sooner was better.  This turned out to be a good idea.  There weren’t many table filled when we got there at a quarter to five, but when we left around 6:30, there were people waiting at the door for their turn to be seated.

Based on the recommendation of my boss, Steve-O (also a Polack), we started the meal off with a Polonaise Martini each (Chopin vodka, dry vermouth, and olives).  As much as I secretly yearn to be James Bond, I really need to come to accept the fact that I’m not a martini drinker.  I can appreciate the quality of the drink, but it’s just not my cup of tea, so to speak.  After the round of martinis, Lindz switched to her standard Bombay Sapphire G&T (gin and tonic) and I tried a Polish beer that I haven’t had before.  Okocim O.K. Beer is a full bodied pale ale that is really good.  Not too light and crisp, but also not too dark and heavy.  All in all, a very nice beer for all occasions.

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Yup. Brace yourselves. I’m going to go there.
It’s more than just O.K.!

For our appetizers, I ordered the pickled herring.  Hey, I’m a Polish kid in a Polish restaurant in the Polish section of town, what did you expect?  Lindz got the Cheese and Potato Pierogi.  The herring was very good, if a bit overpriced.  I do consider it a worthwhile purchase because it was emotionally comforting to be eating herring in that atmosphere.  Herring always reminds me of my Grandparents, Nick and Bert (really it’s Enoch and Bertha, but we’re all about brevity and nicknames).  Grandpa and Grandma have both made and purchased an obscene quantity of the pickled fish over the years.  Combine that with the mid-20th century decor of Nye’s (it’s not retro, they just haven’t changed it in 50 years) that I’ve seen in countless places with my Grandparents and you’ve got yourself a very nostalgic Polack on your hands.

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The individually wrapped crackers did throw me for a bit of a loop, but they did add some needed color to the plate.

Lindz and I both thought the pierogi were good.  Though she prefers the ones at Longfellow’s Grill (which I haven’t had yet).  I really liked the fried onions that came with the dish.  I thought they added a nice savory/sweet taste to the pierogi.

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A plate load of fried carbs, starch, and fat. What’s not to love?

For our entrees, Lindz ordered the special of the evening, creamy pesto shrimp linguini.  Even though the shrimp were a bit overdone, Lindz did like the dish.  Sorry, I didn’t get a picture of it.  I’m trying to find that delicate balance of doing a decent job of documenting these dishes in public without being that annoying prick of a food blogger at the next table who does a full photo shoot with the flash going off like a thunder storm.

Lindz and I both opted for the house salad over the soup with our entrees.  That was a mistake.  The veggies were fresh and the dressing was good, but the salad consisted of lettuce and a wedge of tomato.  Soup would have been better.

I was having a hard time deciding what I wanted to eat until I saw one item on the menu that was an answer to all of my prayers.  The Polonaise Platter (sensing a theme yet?) under the section labeled Polish Specialties.  It came out on a small serving platter (the kind that you put a full roast on).  I just want to say that again to emphasize the amount of food that was placed before me.  It came out on a small serving platter.  It comes with a link of kielbasa (sausage), golabki (cabbage roll), three pierogi (filled dumplings), kluski (potato dumpling), zederka duszone (braised spare ribs), and of course kapusta kizona (our beloved sauerkraut, i.e. fermented cabbage).  I’ve got a lot of ground to cover here, so I’m just going to take one item on the plate at a time.

First up is the Polish sausage.  I’m heavily biased with quite a few foods because my family has been perfecting certain items over generations.  At the head of that list is sausages.  Grandpa Nick would make his own every year and I’ve had very few that comes as close to the perfection of his version.  The ones served at Nye’s are good, but not outstanding, even though they come from the Kramarczuk’s, a well known and well regarded deli in town.

My family rarely made cabbage rolls, so Nye’s is fighting a fair fight here.  In fact, Nye’s stands out quite proudly.  This was by far the best item on whole platter.  It was meaty with a nice flavor of caraway and garlic.  The cabbage leaf cover added a sweet note to each bite.

As far as I can remember, no one in my family has made pierogi, so once again Nye’s has the edge here.  At this point I had already tried the cheese and potato pierogi appetizer, and those were good, but not great.  The ones that I had on my platter were much better.  The one with sauerkraut was okay.  The one with mushrooms was quite tasty.  But the standout one was the one with a cranberry filling.

Kluski is a vague term that can apply to anything between a solid dough dumpling to noodles.  The kluski served at Nye’s was a flour and potato dough made into a dumpling slightly smaller than a baseball.  It was good, but like all the kluski that I’ve had, it is a really dense dough, so the bigger the dumpling, the harder it is to cut and eat.  Which is why I prefer the kluski Mom makes (around the size of the top two sections of your pinkie finger).  Flavor-wise, there really wasn’t any difference between Nye’s and Mom’s.  In short, it was a good dumpling, even if it was a bit large.

Growing up on the farm, I’ve eaten a lot of ribs over the years.  My desire and taste for them have grown and ebbed many times over the years.  Currently I’m in a pro-rib phase, so I really enjoyed the ones at Nye’s.  There was no dominant spice flavor which leads me to suspect that they were boiled with the kraut that it was served with.  Which isn’t a bad option if the kraut is good.

Which leaves me with the kraut.  I’ve never really appreciated kraut until I was in my twenties.  Now I crave it on a regular basis.  I’m not talking about the weird overly processed stuff you find at the grocery store (although Frank’s is pretty decent).  I’m talking about the stuff that is made in 30 gallon crock jars sitting in the basement of your grandmother’s house.  The kraut at Nye’s is arguably better then the stuff I grew up on.  It is less sour (less fermentation) and heavier on the caraway seeds, which I’m a fan of.  This was the other stand out item on the platter.

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Under that pint sized jar worth of kraut lies a half rack of ribs. You can see part of the kielbasa sticking up on top of the photo. The cabbage roll (upper) and kluski (lower) are wedged into the right hand side of the mound of kraut. The three pierogi look miniscule and a bit lost way off on the right.

As I was explaining to Lindz earlier today.  I had a great time at Nye’s.  Even though I had never been there before, I felt totally at home.  A super casual atmosphere and a lot of dear-to-my-heart comfort food is available.  Plus our waitress was super awesome.  I really look forward to making more stops here.

I’m going to leave with a saying that I saw on the menu: Jedzcie pijcie i popuszczajcie pas (Eat, Drink, and Loosen Your Belt).

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Yup. Fell asleep on the couch on date night. I’m such a romantic guy.

P.S. For those of you going “This place sounds really familiar, where have I heard of it before?”, the answer you’re looking for is that it was featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives with Guy Fieri.

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Arctic Weather and Homemade Soup

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been having a proper Minnesota winter.  More often than not the highs were topping out in the single digits with wind chills hovering around -15 degrees Farenheit.  If you’ve ever lived in this climate, you know how appealing a piping hot bowl of soup can be.  In the middle of this cold snap, our friend Ring came over for a visit and I decided to make some homemade french onion soup.

This is yet another example of the necessity to properly read through the recipe and plan accordingly.  The first night I ended up staying awake until one in the morning cooking the onions.  Not the best thought out plan.  Of course, the other option was to be eating at 10 p.m. the next night.  But, I digress.

The recipe I used is from the 9th season of America’s Test Kitchen.

Ingredients – Soup

  • 3 Tbs Unsalted Butter, cut into 3 pieces
  • 6 large Yello Onions (approx. 4 lbs), halved and cut into 1/4″ slices
  • Salt
  • 2 C Water, plus extra for deglazing
  • 1/2 C Dry Sherry
  • 4 C low-sodium Chicken Broth
  • 2 C Beef Broth
  • 6 sprigs Fresh Thyme, tied with kitchen twine (I just used a heaping Tbs of dried)
  • 1 Bay Leaf
  • Black Pepper

Ingredients – Cheese Croutons

  • 1 small Baguette, cut into 1/2″  slices
  • 8 oz shredded Gruyère Cheese (approx 2 1/2 C)  (I used Mozzarella because I’m too cheap to drop $20 on cheese for one recipe)

For the Soup:  Adjust the oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Generously spray the inside of a heavy-bottomed pot (at least 7 quart) with nonstick cooking spray.  Place the butter in the pot and add the onions and 1 tsp salt.  Cover, and cook for 1 hour.  The onions will be moist and slightly reduced in volume.  Remove the pot from the oven and stir, scraping the bottom and sides.  Return the pot to the oven with the lid slightly ajar.  Continue to cook the onions until they are very soft and golden brown.  This will take 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours longer.  At the 1 hour mark, stir the onions and scrape the bottom and sides again.

(This is a good stopping point if you want to split up the cooking.  Just let the pot cool and stick it in the fridge till you are ready to get back to the cooking.)

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First part of the cooking done and I was off to bed.

Carefully remove the pot from the oven and place it over medium-high heat.  Using oven mitts to handle the pot, cook the onions, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom and sides of the pot until the liquid evaporates and the onions brown, approx. 15 to 20 minutes.  Reduce the heat to medium if the onions are browning too quickly.  Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the bottom of the pot is coated with a dark crust, approx. 6 to 8 minutes, adjusting the heat as necessary.  Stir in 1/4 C of water, scraping the bottom to loosen the crust.  Cook until the water evaporates and another dark crust forms.  Repeat the deglazing 2 or 3 more times until the onions are very dark brown.  Stir in the sherry and cook, stirring frequently, until the sherry evaporates, approx. 5 minutes.

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Starting to look like a proper french onion soup.

Stir in the broths, 2 C of water, thyme, bay leaf, and 1/2 tsp salt.  Scrape up any final bits of browned crust on the bottom and sides of the pot.  Increase the heat to high and bring up to a boil.  Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.  Remove and discard the herbs.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

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Liquid added, flavors melded, and almost ready to eat.

For the Croutons:  While the soup simmers, arrange the baguette slices in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake in a 400 degree F oven until the bread is dry, crisp, and golden at the edges, approx. 10 minutes

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Lacking the proper bowls, I found an alternative path to get the crouton with melted cheese on top of the soup.

To Serve:  Adjust the oven rack to 6″ from the broiler and heat the broiler.  Set individual broiler-safe crocks on a baking sheet and fill each with 1 3/4 C soup.  Top each bowl with 1 or 2 baguette slices (don’t overlap) and sprinkle evenly with the cheese.  Broil until the cheese is melted and bubbly around the edges, approx. 3 to 5 minutes.  Let cool 5 minutes before serving.

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Not quite the standard french onion soup presentation, but every bit of the flavor is there.

From start to finish, this recipe took me around five and a half hours to complete.  Granted, half of that time was waiting for the onions to brown in the oven, so it was time-consuming, but not very labor intensive.  Just make sure you give yourself a nice big block of time when you plan on cooking this.

Ring gave me crap about not properly melting the cheese on top, but my feelings would have been hurt otherwise.  Lindz said that this even surpassed the french onion soup at one of the restaurants where she used to work, which previously was her favorite.  Score one for the TJ!  For a relatively short list of ingredients, I thought that this method gave a nice depth to the flavor of the soup.

Czeck-Mass (not to be confused with Czeck-mas)

My family is Catholic (with the stray Lutheran or two), so when my Grandfather Mike passed away back in ’76, a mass was said for him.  That has turned into a yearly tradition which has been going strong ever since.  As other relatives have passed away over the years, they have been added to the remembrance.

The mass is held at my parent’s church (which also used to be my grandparents) and afterwards, everyone heads over to the farm to BS and eat lunch.  So I thought it would be fitting to use this as a post on the one year (-ish) anniversary of starting this blog.  The reasoning is pretty simple.  Family gatherings like these have been a major influence on my life, both culinarily and communally.  I look forward to this event each and every year because it’s one of the few times that I get to see a large portion of my family.  That and the food.  The Czecks love to eat.  And they love to eat good food.

As usual, Mom set out some munchies for when people showed up. In this case, mixed nuts, candy corn, butter mints, and coffee.

I just want to point out that the food has been scaled back significantly as the years have gone by.  The food this year completely covered the kitchen table and the desserts took up a decent portion of a counter.

Okay, this is going to take awhile. Starting upper left and working counter clockwise around the perimeter of the table: bread / dinner rolls, pasta salad, veggie pizza, a creamy pasta salad, cottage cheese, wild rice salad, and roast pheasant. The inside loop consists of cheese, bread and butter pickles, watermelon, and kale salad.

As noted in a previous post, my nephew Cole helped me make a kale salad (I really promise this post is coming soon).  My aunt Rosie (and hubby Gary) went to the State Fair this year and she sat through a twenty minute demonstration in order to get this wild rice salad recipe (at least I think this is the recipe).  I’m glad she was patient because it was very good.  It had avocado, steak, wild rice, and all sorts of other goodies in it.  One of my other aunties, Mary Ann, had a freezer full of pheasant, so she used this opportunity to get rid of some of it.  Much to everyone’s delight I might add.  She fried off the pieces, made a pan gravy, and finished it off in the crockpot.  She had some of the younger kids come up to her and tell her how good it was.  It was really cute.  Some of those kids have never had pheasant before.  It warmed my heart that they were willing to try something completely new and even more that they liked it.

Now this is looking the opposite way down the table. Here I’m just going to list the things not previously listed. A veggie tray, sausages, another pasta salad, and ham

Mom was the one who made the sausages.  She picked up five pounds of the polish at Thielen’s (as usual) and it all disappeared by the time everyone was through eating.  It really is that good.  I can’t talk up that meat locker enough.

The good stuff! Michelle kept everyone happy and made an apple coffee cake. I’m not sure what kind of pie, but I would hazard a guess of apple.

I think there may have been a riot if my sis, Chell, didn’t make coffee cake.  (I’ve posted the recipe before.)  I don’t even care that she didn’t make the poppy seed version because she sent a whole apple one home with Lindz and me.  If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m very easily bribed with food.  It’s even easier when it’s really good homemade food.

Popcorn balls drizzled with chocolate and chocolate chip bars.

I was joking with my cousin Jon about the popcorn balls that he brought.  I asked him if he was trying to class up the Czeck gatherings by drizzling chocolate over them.  He just smiled sheepishly and chuckled.  Good enough of an answer because they were a chocolate-caramel delight.

They may be adults, but Sara, Jill, and Jon still ended up at the kid’s table. That’s one problem with being the “babies” of the family. Of course, they may have been entertaining Mason (his mom, Kathy is watching from the back).

Lindz catching up with Dad’s two younger sisters, Rosie and Annette.

Dave, Dad, Bea, Kyle, and Janey talking and eating. As it should be.

Mary Ann eating and keeping Mom company while she fusses around in the kitchen.

I’ve tried for years to get Mom to sit down, relax for a minute, and grab a bite to eat.  But she is having none of it.  At this point, I ask the token question of if she needs help and then let her do her thing.  For the record, I do gladly help when she asks for it.

As a final note, I am endlessly amused watching people on the farm.  It started out many years ago with my cousins.  They would run around like wild animals crawling over the hay bales, running through the woods, sitting on the tractors, chasing the cats, mooing at the cows, and spooking the chickens.  Or what I would call a normal day.  Now that my cousins are older and have kids of their own, I get to watch the next generation do the same thing.  And you know what?  It still hasn’t gotten old.

The two that started all of this: Grandpa Mike and Grandma Rose (circa 1971)

Mmm . . . Tuna Melts

For some reason I always forget how cheap and easy tuna melts are to make and how much I enjoy them.  It may have something to due with the fact that I’ve had plenty of bad melts in my time.  This mostly stems from institutions, i.e. school, and a particular restaurant that I used to frequent.  In the former case, it was just flavorless and in the latter, the tuna always seemed to be cold.  I’m guessing it was due to the fact that they pre-made the tuna and refrigerated the mixture and it never got a chance to heat through when they made it.  Which leads me into the major benefit of making it for myself and Lindz.  The tuna starts off room temp which is a 30 degree headstart going into the oven.  Also, I get to make it to suit my palette instead of going with a more neutral flavor.

For two people, I start off with three tins of tuna and add mayo until I get the right consistency.  For me it usually is where the tuna looks wet with mayo but not swimming in it.  I finely dice a couple of slices of onion and add them to the mix.  A little salt and pepper to taste, and this part is done.  I then evenly distribute it among six slices of bread.  For mine, I added some sliced banana peppers.

The base of a good tuna melt is a good tuna mix.

Add a slice of tomato.

I first ran across the addition of tomato at the cafe that consistently had cold tuna and I have been using it ever since.

And finally the cheese for the melt.  I usually use cheddar, but this time I used up some mozzarella that was hiding in the back of the fridge.

Usually I would try to squeeze another slice of cheese on each, but I ran out.

Finally they go into a preheated oven (I think I had it set at 375 degrees F) for about 15 minutes (I think).  I usually check it frequently to make sure nothing is burning.  I pull everything out when I have a nice golden brown on the cheese.

Great. Now I’m craving tuna melts.

You probably should rotate the pan once or twice while baking.  As you can see, some of the cheese is significantly more browned than others.  Unfortunately, Lindz’s pieces took the hit the hardest which ticked me off more than if mine were worse.  It’s a pride thing.

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