Thanks to a canceled connecting flight, which yielded a most-expenses-paid evening in Paris, the very last thing I ate on my recent trip to Europe was a plateful of flambéed calves’ kidneys and fondant potatoes at Au Pied de Cochon. While I’ve never before eaten offal in a septuagenarian French brasserie, its flavors were instantly familiar since it’s among the classic dishes responsible for countless Francophile riffs in this country.
By contrast, I was flat out discombobulated by the first thing I ate on my European vacation. Until I stepped into Herring Embassy, a lively restaurant that pioneered the now-popular (at least in Krakow, Poland) pickled fish-and-vodka shot format, I hadn’t considered trimming creamed herring with fresh strawberries.
Obviously, I haven’t eaten as much herring as people who live in colder places, but it seems like herring’s punch is more typically parried by apples or beets, as in the best-known Russian layered salad, Herring Under a Fur Coat. In any case, the strawberries were brilliant. And they provided an unforgettable demonstration of how masterfully Polish cuisine meshes sour with sweet.
Still, my favorite example of the combination was still days away. Later in the week, I ate borscht and stuffed cabbage at Bar Familijny in Warsaw, one of the city’s last surviving bar mleczny from the Communist era. Milk bars have lately enjoyed a small revival, but Bar Familijny dates back to the days when the government subsidized tens of thousands of similar workers’ canteens, serving wholesome meals in exchange for a few zlotys.
Neither the decor nor the menu has changed much since then, so we were able to round out our meal with a $1.45 serving of rice cooked in milk, finished with a generous heap of sugared sour cream and a dozen plump strawberries. If you add up those components in your head, you’ll realize the dish amounts to a poor man’s rice pudding, although I’m not sure I’d opt for a more elaborate version even if I had a Rothschildian budget.
There’s nothing outlandish about mixing sour cream with fruit, and nobody who’s baked what’s commonly called a “Mexican casserole” can claim ignorance of sour cream and rice. But the ingredient trio, enhanced with just enough sugar to smooth over the sour cream’s tang, is an outstanding tribute to summertime, Polish or otherwise.
Various websites have published recipes for ryz z truskawkami, but you can probably wing it, much as you might a grilled cheese sandwich (although you’ll miss out on the nostalgia-sodden head notes recalling mountain lakes and grandmothers). I’m also curious how well this dessert would work with peaches. At least, that’s where my mind went when I stopped eating pickles and lard just long enough to scroll through Instagram posts from home.
Speaking of Instagram, I put a ridiculous number of trip photos in the highlights portion of my profile there. And I’m not done with Polish food yet. Look for my longer report on the birthplace of bagels in an upcoming food section.