Vegetables, beans and kasza

Vegetables, beans and kasza

By
Zuza Zak
Contains
14 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781849497268
Photographer
Laura Edwards

“…Row on row Of fruit trees give their shade to beds below cabbage sits and bows her scrawny pate Musing upon her vegetable fate; The slender bean entwines the carrot’s tresses And with a thousand eyes his love expresses; Here hangs the golden tassel of the maize, And there a bellied watermelon strays, That rolling from his stem far off is found, A stranger on the crimson beetroot’s ground.”

{Adam Mickiewicz, Pan Tadeusz}

Polish cuisine is rarely thought of as being rich in healthy vegetables, yet in reality there are many vegetable dishes and vegetarian options. One word for vegetables is włoszczyzna, which comes from the word Włochy – the Polish word for Italy. This is thanks to the famous Italian Queen Bona Sforza who brought many vegetables to Poland during her reign.

Generally, when people think of Poland potatoes spring to mind, and I must confess we do love the common spud! When I was little I’d put them in the bottom of a fire pit. Once the sun had gone down and the fire had burned out, the spud was retrieved from the bottom of the pit – coal black and cooked through. You’d open up this black charcoal ball to reveal the fluffy white flesh that tasted of the earth and the fire, all it needed was some butter and salt. To get the full wonder of this, the simplest of dishes; the potato had to be organic, and not too old.

However, it is not the potato, but kasza (pronounced ‘kasha’) that is the original food of our Slavic ancestors. Kasza is the word we use for many different grains, each one with its own flavour, nutrients and uses. Kasza has been cultivated in Central Eastern Europe since the first Slavic settlers came and farmed the land, around the beginning of the first millennium. During those pagan times, it was given as a gift to the gods, along with honey and cheese, to ensure a healthy, successful life of a newborn child. The traditional way of cooking kasza is boiling it in water for about 20 minutes, like rice, but then wrapping the pan up in newspaper, tying a towel round it and sticking the whole package under a duvet, for another hour, in order to steam. One of my clearest childhood memories is my grandma Ziuta wrapping the kasza up like a baby in a towel and a blanket, then putting it in her bed for the best part of an hour, in what seemed to be a ritualistic rite. (You can also just leave it covered to carry on steaming for half an hour. However, this loving method does produce the best tasting buckwheat groats.)

Kaszas, like beans, are dried and are available year round, whereas vegetable dishes are usually seasonal, meaning we eat different vegetables at different times of the year. The firm favourite kasza in Poland has to be the dark brown, toasted buckwheat groats, kasza gryczana. Although it was considered peasant food for a very long time, the Transylvanian King Batory, through sheer love of this kasza, elevated it from the peasants’ table to the King’s table. The popular Polish-Hungarian Queen Jadwiga favoured kasza krakowska, which she apparently ate sweetened with raisins. Even though Queen Jadwiga generously gave up all her jewels to expand the national university, it was rumoured that she kept her precious dried fruits and exotic spices under lock and key in a chest reserved for treasure – that’s my kind of Queen!

Even though the concept of vegetarianism is a relatively new idea to this part of the world, I find that many of these dishes can be prepared without meat. When there is meat in a vegetable dish you can leave it out or make simple substitutions to ensure the dish is entirely vegetarian-friendly.

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