Personal Foodstory: Recreating an old family favorite when you don’t have the recipe

Jozef Kochel, the writer’s grandfather (SR)
Anna Kochel, the writer’s grandmother (COURTESY ADRIANA JANOVICH / COURTESY OF ADRIANA JANOVICH)
The author's grandmother, Anna Kochel, used this antique meat grinder for more than 50 years before passing it down. (Adriana Janovich / The Spokesman-Review)
These Polish potato dumplings are filled with a mixture ground beef and pork, and topped with onion, bacon, freshly cracked pepper and Maldon sea salt. Adriana Janovich/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Adriana Janovich / The Spokesman-Review)
These Polish potato dumplings are filled with a mixture ground beef and pork, and topped with onion, bacon, freshly cracked pepper and Maldon sea salt. (Adriana Janovich / The Spokesman-Review)
These Polish potato dumplings are filled with a mixture ground beef and pork, and topped with onion, bacon, freshly cracked pepper and Maldon sea salt. (Adriana Janovich / The Spokesman-Review)

When Grandpa died we drank his whiskey.

But I didn’t remember ever seeing him have a sip. The way I understood it, the parties took place in the ’50s and ’60s, in the daylight basement, where the home bar was tucked into a corner on the opposite wall from Grandma’s Singer sewing machine. She sewed, my aunt said, a new dress for every party – and poodle skirts for my mom and aunt when they were girls, and matching Christmas dresses for me and my sister when we were.

The parties stopped long before we were born. After school, we would “play bar,” serving each other empty airplane bottles that we pretended to drink out of and strawberry ice cream in Melmac bowls. The sink under the window still worked, but the mirrored shelves stood empty – the mini-fridge disconnected – as long as we had ever known.

White-edged, yellow-toned, square photos show Mom – with such long hair and so blond – cutting cake. They show people I don’t recognize with tumblers of amber liquid. A middle-aged, young-looking Grandpa is in some of the images – smiling, broadly.

Was he drunk? Buzzed? Or, just really happy?

Grandpa didn’t talk much. He was injured in the war, meeting Grandma in the canteen of the relocation camp for displaced persons when he was 29 and she, just 19. Three years later, they sailed for America with a tow-haired toddler – my mom.

I told friends Dziadek never quite learned the language. But, looking back now, I think he understood more than he let on. He seemed happiest around our family at holiday dinners, about to enjoy a plate of kolduny, or when he played bingo in the cafeteria of my old high school, or when he watched “The Price is Right” from his gold, velvet wingback chair, or in that moment right before the machine drew the numbers and he realized he hadn’t won the lottery.

After school, if we were lucky, he would make sandwiches: sourdough or rye stuffed with thick red-and-spotted-white rounds of dry salami. By then, he’d already had one open-heart surgery. When she got home from work, Mom chided him about cholesterol, and he fought back.

“Cholera!” he would say in the closest I’ve heard him come to yelling. “Cholera!” And, sometimes, if she really badgered him, “Holy cholera!”

It sounded so pretty. “What does that mean?” we asked.

Mom wouldn’t say.

Babcia and Dziadek stayed close to home. As far as I knew, they only went five places: the grocery store, the doctor, church, Polish Hall and our house. Grandma would bring pierogi – carefully packaged, handmade, completely perfect. Grandpa would carry a plastic bag of onions or potatoes dug from their garden. They grew corn, too – and pears, strawberries, gooseberries, garlic and apples – for pie.

This Easter, my aunt showed me a photo I had never seen before: Grandma, caught forever in the ’60s, balancing a purse and napkin in one hand and a glass of sherry in the other. She’s wearing a homemade, deep-pink, Jackie-O-style dress and matching pink pillbox hat covered in faux flowers.

I’d never seen the dress before. But the hat I remember. When I was a girl, Grandma would lift it out of its box, stashed on the top shelf of her closet, and marvel about how thin and stylish she had been after she came to America and before she had all four of her children.

Years ago, she went around the house, writing our names on scraps of paper and taping them to things. The carved wooden eggs in the crystal basket in the china hutch. The vase of Polish pottery that had long since sat on the hearth, filled with porcelain flowers and spiky, dried leaves from Palm Sundays of the past. That pink, flowered pillbox hat. Everything was always in the exact same place – most of it wrapped in tissue paper.

We found Grandpa’s whiskey on the bottom shelf, tucked behind Grandma’s cardboard Quaker oats container full of her homemade breadcrumbs. There wasn’t much left. And I didn’t really want any. In my mid-20s, I was more of a Guinness drinker.

But it felt wrong not to imbibe, to let my aunt and uncle drink the rest of Grandpa’s whiskey themselves. Grandma would hardly have a glass of wine, let alone whiskey. Mom wouldn’t want the empty calories. And my cousin wasn’t yet old enough to drink.

Grandpa’s Wild Turkey tasted like burning, and cut through the numbness, stinging my eyes.

I had last visited in December, just before Christmas. Their place was my first stop before I went to meet friends. I don’t remember where we went or what we did or who I even saw that night, but I can still picture Grandpa – fragile, thin – framed by the screen door of the house he built.

He had a choice in 1957, just five years after coming to this country: build on property with a view of Puget Sound or on a double lot along the No. 21 bus line.

He choose the bus stop.

Friday was payday and, my aunt said, when she was little, Grandpa would sit at the dining room table, counting his cash, paying his bills and drinking a beer or Scotch and water.

When she told me this, I thought: I would have liked to have had a beer or a glass of Scotch and water with Grandpa. I would have liked to attend one of those parties in the basement. I know I could call Grandma and ask her about them, and I might. But she turned 89 this month. And her stories, they change.

When I told her, on Mother’s Day, that I had made my first batch of kolduny, she seemed pleased. But when I asked her how she had made hers, she couldn’t remember. Grandpa liked them, I said. He did, she said.

We sold her house in March for more than $90,000 over the asking price. Grandpa would’ve been proud. I think he also would’ve wanted us to keep it in the family. But Grandma needs the money to pay for assisted living, where – she insists – people are stealing from her.

In one of Mom’s recent emails, she wrote that she’d found a set of four, crystal old-fashioned glasses while she and my aunt were clearing out the house. They didn’t have a handwritten name taped to them.

“Did you want them?” she wondered.

Polish Meat-Filled Potato Dumplings (Pyzy z Miesem)

From PolishYourKitchen.com

Kolduny are potato pancakes stuffed with ground meat.

But the meat-filled potato dumplings that Grandma and Grandpa called kolduny were less like pancakes and more like large potato ovals stuffed with seasoned ground meat. Kolduny, the way my grandparents made them, were basically meat-stuffed kluski, or grated potato dumplings. My uncle referred to them as glue balls. I remember them always looking rather gray.

Pierogi were the family favorite and always No. 1 in my book. But Grandpa particularly liked kolduny, which – if you asked me – came in a fairly close second. Hearty, rustic and belly-warming, they’re stuffed with seasoned pork, which Grandma used to grind herself. She was born in a part of Poland that’s now Belarus, and kolduny – or variations of it – are found in Polish, Lithuanian and Belarusian cuisine.

Unlike potato pancakes, Grandma’s kolduny were boiled, not fried. But, when I asked earlier this month, she couldn’t remember her method. And I couldn’t find the notes I had written from the last time I had asked her about them – years ago. I’m pretty sure she didn’t use pureed potatoes or potato flour, which made these dumplings turn out lighter and fluffier than the ones she made. But they did the job, easing the ache in hollow places that needed filling when, earlier this year, my mom and aunt emptied the house my grandparents had lived in for more than 50 years.

Filling:

1/2 pound pork

1/2 pound beef

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

2 small cloves garlic, crushed

Oil for sautéing

1/2 large onion, chopped

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 cup chicken, beef or vegetable broth

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1/2 tablespoons marjoram

2 cloves of garlic

Dumplings:

2 pounds potatoes, peeled,

1 egg

1/4 onion

Pinch salt

3/4 cup potato flour

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

To make the filling: Over pork and beef, sprinkle salt, pepper and onion powder, then add crushed garlic. Sauté in a couple tablespoons of oil until cooked and edges of the meat are golden brown. Set aside to cool.

Saute onion in butter until golden brown. Set aside to cool.

When meat cools off, mince in a food processor or meat grinder. When smooth, add stock, sautéed onion, salt, pepper, garlic and marjoram. Mix well to combine. Taste, add more salt, if needed.

To make dumplings: Boil 2 pounds peeled potatoes (or use leftover potatoes) until cooked through. Set aside to cool. When cooled off, mash with a hand masher (or use a potato press) until smooth.

Place the remaining 1 pound of raw potatoes, 1/4 of an onion and 1/4 cup of water in a blender and blend until smooth. Place a cheese cloth over a strainer and pour raw potato mixture into it. Let drain for a few minutes. Twist the cloth and squeeze some of the water out, but not all.

Add raw potato mixture to boiled mashed potatoes, add egg, a pinch of salt, and both flours. Mix to form dough. It should be pretty sticky but not fall apart.

Using a 1/4 cup measuring cup or an ice cream scoop, scoop potato mixture onto your hand and form a circle. Fill the circle with as much meat as you can fit, and fold the sides of the circle up to close the dumpling. When closed, roll in your palms to even out the balls.

Fill a large pot with water, add salt and a splash of oil and bring to boil. Drop dumplings into boiling water in batches. Stir gently and boil on low for about 5 minutes from the time the water starts bubbling.

Take out and serve immediately garnished with sautéed onion (or sour cream). If serving later, spread them on an oiled surface, so they don’t stick.