Ethnic Cooking Night
By: Ania Jablonowski
Growing up, I was always amazed by my mom's fantastic culinary skills. Everything she cooked was homemade from scratch, and as authentic as it gets. My mom made all the Polish cuisine classics: kotlety, bigos, zupa grzybowa, buraczki, you name it. Her cooking was so good, that it intimidated enough to the point that I refused to try making anything in her kitchen.
Until I turned 21 years old, I barely cooked anything beyond macaroni and cheese, spaghetti (with premade sauce), or frozen pizza. My parents would joke with me and say, "How is any man ever going to marry you if you can't cook?!"
During my senior year at DePaul University, I got a job as a waitress and bartender at a local restaurant in Glenview called Pinocchio's Pizza and Pub. Their menu had most Italian dishes including lasagna, chicken parmesan, fettuccini alfredo, and ravioli. While waiting in the kitchen for my customers’ food order, I would sneak peeks at how the cooks prepared their meals. I was fascinated at how quickly they could create several meals at the same time. My curiosity led to an opportunity to learn how to cook, and I began asking our staff for some basic Cooking 101.
Within a week of working at the restaurant, I was motivated to treat my parents to a homemade meal. I noted all of the ingredients used for the restaurant's chicken parmesan and headed to Shop and Save. When my parents saw me come home with the groceries, they were utterly confused. "What's this? You bought food for the house?" With a smile on my face, I replied, "Better yet - I am cooking you dinner!"
It felt so good to go through the whole process of finding a recipe, buying the ingredients, and making a meal for my family. Though my mom was probably half my age when she started cooking (she is the oldest girl in a family of six kids), I figured it was only a matter of time for me to inherit her culinary skills.
Although, I have to admit... I deliberately chose a different type of cuisine, Italian, because this was something my mom had never made before. Our house, for the most part, had always been traditionally Polish - with the exception of deliveries and catering. In my mind, I thought that my mom would not have a reference point (her own cooking) to compare the final product of my chicken parmesan. She had a general idea of how it should taste, and as long it wasn't over or under cooked, she would love it. Both my parents enjoyed my newfound passion for cooking as I continued to try different recipes from my restaurant. My dad was even convinced that in addition to my ability to clean, I can in fact be marriage material.
At the age of 28, I still felt like I had a missing piece to my cultural puzzle. I had not yet tried cooking any Polish food on my own. About a year ago, I attempted to make gołąbki with my mom. I wish this was recorded on video, because it was quite comedic. I sat at the counter with my laptop, trying to document each step, with Mamusia saying, "A handful of this, and eyeball that..." Nothing in this recipe could be accurately quantified. The laptop was quickly put away and I decided to let my mom handle the rest of the process without my participation. Slightly discouraged and disappointed in myself for giving up, I promised myself that by the end of 2013, I will have learned to make three Polish dishes.
Well, this year is flying by fast and I decided it was time to stick to my goal. I called up a few friends and invited them over for our inaugural First Generation American Project "Ethnic Cooking Night." The plan was to find three recipes, either from our family or online, and make a Polish menu. The majority of the girls attending were first generation American, and very few of us actually had hands-on experience in making Polish food.
Among the guests for Ethnic Cooking Night was Rachael Brown, founder of Basia's Kitchen. Rachael was inspired to learn Polish through the universal language of food. Since her boyfriend is first generation Polish-American, she wants to be able to communicate with Adam's family and also make the same dishes that Adam is accustomed to eating. Needless to say, our dear Rachael was the executive chef in my kitchen.
Our group created a Google document for us all to post the three recipes and check off who can bring what. We confirmed sałatka z buraków gotowanych (beet salad), gołąbki (stuffed cabbage - this was my redemption round!), and sernik (cheesecake). After a Sunday morning trip to the farmer's market in Bucktown, we were ready to go!
There was a certain level of excitement that was tangible in the kitchen, as the water boiled and we stationed ourselves to each menu item. Rachael was a tremendous help is guiding us throughout each recipe, and I was shocked at how simple it was to make the gołąbki. In the end, we had a huge amount of food, enough to feed twice the size of our group - which is always the case when my mom cooks, so this meant we must have done something right. The verdict was, it’s definitely a little different than any of our families have made, and perhaps the gołąbki were not as neatly packed as usual, but the meal was truly delicious and made with a lot of love. All of us were proud to connect with our cultural roots and learn how to make authentic Polish food.
To learn more about our guest executive chef, Rachael Brown, visit www.basiaskitchen.com