Polish

The Healing Powers of Antoni's Hearty Polish Soup

Tangy and fortifying, zurek starts with a fermented sour rye soup starter called zakwas. Though you can buy it at Polish markets, it takes just a few minutes to mix it up yourself.

September 10, 2019
Photo by Paul Brissman

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones. This week, an excerpt from Emmy Award–winning chef and television personality Antoni Porowski's new cookbook, Antoni in the Kitchen—including his recipe for zurek, a comforting Polish soup his mother made for him growing up.

"The healing quality of this tangy, fortifying soup comes, ostensibly, from a fermented sour rye soup starter called zakwas," Porowski writes. "Though you can buy it at Polish markets, it takes just a few minutes to mix it up yourself. Just build in a few days to your soup-making plan for the fermentation to take place. The hearty combination of root vegetables, kielbasa, pickles, sour cream, and hard-boiled eggs makes this soup a meal."


Photo by Rux Martin Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

I was born and raised in Montreal. My parents, both Polish, came from upper-middle-class families. My father had been raised in Montreal (his parents having fled Poland during World War II), but my mother had lived in Poland until her early twenties, when she met and married my dad. Both were well educated and had fairly broad palates, but they also clung tightly to the food traditions of their Polish heritage.

Following the path of my sisters, Karolina and Aleksandra (my elders by fifteen and nine years), I went to Ecole Saint-Laurent, a French school with a student body made up of kids from Indian, Eastern European, Portuguese, Iranian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Chinese, and Vietnamese families. My favorite event of the year was Le Buffet des Nations (The Buffet of Nations), which took place in the school gym. Each family brought a dish from their country and, sharing them, we learned about the faraway places our parents had come from. My Portuguese-Iranian friend Andrew Shahidi’s parents brought tahdig, a delicious rice dish with a golden, crispy panfried bottom. There were tagines and egg rolls and curries. My mom made a version of a Polish classic called krokiety, thin rolled crepes stuffed with meat or mushrooms, dipped in egg, rolled in bread crumbs, and fried in butter. She’d fancy hers up with handpicked morels and chanterelles and a Cognac-cream sauce.

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On Saturdays I went to Polish school, where I learned history, language, spelling, and dictation and practiced Catholic prayer. Mrs. Siwikowa, the principal and my teacher, wore the same beehive hairstyle and triangular glasses she had when my dad was her student more than three decades earlier.

When Saturday school let out, we’d buy little plum jam–filled doughnuts, called pączki, from Pâtisserie Wawel on Rue Sherbrooke, then head to Wayne’s Deli — a Polish grocery named for a Canadian man who had married a woman from the motherland and turned his obsession with the food of her country into a roaring business. There we’d get fresh handmade pierogies, house-smoked kielbasa, Polish ham, headcheese, sauerkraut, and pastries, plus little treats like krówki (milky fudge candies) and Prince Polo Bars (the Polish version of Kit Kats).

At home my mom put together the big Saturday spread. She crisped up slices of kielbasa in a skillet and arranged them on a platter with sauerkraut and a crock of hot Polish mustard. My father, who was in charge of anything that was put on bread, spread slices of fresh rye with cold butter, then layered on sliced ham, a smear of Poland’s beloved Kielecki mayonnaise, and razor-thin slices of very dill-y pickles that came from the barrel at the deli.

For culinary inspiration outside her Polish repertoire, my mom turned to classics like beef Stroganoff, which she made often during the cold Montreal winters. My parents went sailing in the British Virgin Islands every December, and my mom came back with recipes like mango-wrapped roast salmon topped with bubbling charred Brie from chic waterfront restaurants where they’d eaten.

I never cooked with my mother; she didn’t like anyone helping her in the kitchen. But she was happy to let me sit with a little snack at the other end of the island and watch. Just before a dish was ready, she’d let me weigh in on any final salt and pepper adjustments. I loved tasting and being part of it all.


My father wasn’t a cook, but he loved food. On Friday nights, he put together his famous cheese board. There were always at least four or five varieties, including a rich triple-cream selection, like Délice de Bourgogne, and one real stinker (often an Epoisses or Valdeón) that had to be held under a glass cloche lest its aroma become offensive. We almost always had our very favorite, Riopelle de l’Isle, a buttery soft-ripened type from Quebec, named after the famous Québécois abstract expressionist artist Jean-Paul Riopelle. Alongside the cheeses were carefully considered pairings like Champagne grapes, fresh figs, thinly sliced Anjou pears, and roasted Marcona almonds, along with three kinds of bread, which often included the famous baguette trente-six heures (the dough was fermented for thirty-six hours before baking) from a bakery called Au Pain d’Oré.

My father worked around the clock, including nights and weekends, and my mother split her time between the States and Canada, which often left me alone. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I longed for family.

It was during summers with my Aunt Magda J that I first had the chance to get into the kitchen. She and Uncle Stefan had a big log cabin in the historic village of Knowlton, in Quebec. Situated on acres of rolling hills with a magical wooded perimeter, it was the place where our relatives and close family friends and their kids all convened. We played by the lake and went horseback riding nearby. It was our own special summer camp.

Along with all the fun, everyone had to sign up for a task. My favorite was being in the kitchen, where I helped cook, set the table, and do the dishes. My cousin Maïa let me help her measure the ingredients and stir together the dough for her lemon bars. I came to appreciate the whole process of serving a meal, and I loved the collaborative nature and inclusivity of working as a team in the kitchen.

Around the same time, my sister Aleks signed up for a subscription to Martha Stewart Living. Aleks would re-create dishes from the magazine, and she was drawn to the visual aspects of both the food and tabletop decor. I was curious about how the recipes worked. Aleks and I didn’t get along very well during those years, but the magazine showed us that we shared a common passion, and it sparked my interest in entertaining.

When I finished elementary school, my father took a job in West Virginia, since it was typical at the time for Canadian doctors to head south for better work opportunities. I went with him and my mom, while my sisters stayed behind in our house in Montreal. My father worked around the clock, including nights and weekends, and my mother split her time between the States and Canada, which often left me alone. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I longed for family.

At fourteen, I began hosting dinner parties for my friends. Cooking for and sharing food with people gave me the comfort of the family experience I needed. My signature dish was warm roasted garlic spread onto torn pieces of baguette and served with nuggets of Parmesan cheese. I made sure to have the garlic finishing up in the oven when my friends arrived, so the warmth and fragrance would welcome them. The menu continued with dishes like grilled chicken that had been marinated in a raspberry barbecue sauce, which I served with fresh raspberries on the side. I piled slices of grilled zucchini and bell peppers onto a big platter and topped them with fresh oregano and a drizzle of olive oil and red wine vinegar. When I was feeding just myself, I folded grated Parm and frozen peas into boxed mac and cheese.


At Concordia University, I took acting classes on the side while studying psychology and art history, and I spent my weekends waiting tables at a classic Polish restaurant, Stash Café. Stash was owned by my Auntie Ewa at the time, and working there was a family tradition. My dad had put in his hours when he was in college; Auntie Magda and her three daughters, Olga, Marta, and Maïa, had all been employees, and so had both of my sisters when they were in school. Located in a historic seventeenth-century building on a cobblestone street in the heart of the city's Old Port, it's a magical little place, dimly lit with a warm glow from red-shaded lamps that hang from the rough-hewn wood-beamed ceiling. There are church pews for seats and art deco–style film and theater prints by the Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka. Vodka is kept in a dedicated freezer. (Today Stash is one of the few remaining Polish restaurants in Montreal.)

I always showed up for my lunch shift horribly hungover. A rickety staircase led to the basement prep area, where a group of Polish grandmothers made pierogies, cooked the beets for the borscht and chlodnik, rolled krokiety, stirred big pots of bigos stew, pounded pork chops, shaved cabbage, and cut carrots into the shape of flowers that they dyed red with beet juice and served with a sprig of parsley to mimic a rose. As tough on us waiters as they were during service, they made sure we started and ended our shifts with full bellies. Pani (Lady) Marysia always greeted me when I arrived and offered me a steaming bowl of zurek (a hearty sausage and vegetable soup) topped with an extra helping of hard-boiled eggs and a double or triple spoonful of sour cream. I would go upstairs, devour it, and feel human again.

Excerpted from Antoni in the Kitchen © 2019 by Antoni Porowski with Mindy Fox. Photography © 2019 by Paul Brissman. Reproduced by permission of Rux Martin Books/ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

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4 Comments

Lauren September 16, 2019
I loved growing up in a Polish family!! I'm always looking for recipes that my family made and didn't leave recipes for. I've never heard of this, but would LOVE to try it. I saved it and may try it this winter. Antoni, Thank you so much for sharing your family story and recipe.
 
Anne H. September 15, 2019
Thank you so much for your story, I love stories like this that take you into the everyday lives of people from other counties and cultures. These family stories from the kitchen are those that no amount of travel can give but that serve to show our differences and that which we all have in common. Thank you again and please keep writing.
 
Danuta G. September 14, 2019
Żurek! Love this soup... and loved Antoni's back story. So much of it is mine too, as I also grew up in Montreal...and this brought back many wonderful memories! It's been ages since I visited Montreal, I wonder if Polish Babka (a Polish delicatessen run by two brothers) located on Cote St Luc Road, in NDG, is still there?
 
J September 10, 2019
How else might I use the zakwas since I don't eat pork?