(by Katie Kirwan)
I’ve always had an appetite. An appetite for life, people, and food. As a child you could find me sneaking donuts, climbing in cupboards, or at a neighbor’s house having my second breakfast on the way to school. It wasn’t that my mother didn’t feed us enough because we always had plenty. I think some people are insatiable, and it motivated me to keep searching, searching for that perfect bite, that moment of bliss. As a chef, I am treated to many amazing culinary moments, but they still have a way of making me want more.
My mother is a great cook, but during my adolescence, she fell victim to the casserole craze and hopped right on that Betty Crocker bandwagon. I don't blame her for taking shortcuts. She had three small kids, a full-time nursing job, and a hungry husband to feed. She put a homemade dinner on the table almost every night of the week. Some meals were more successful than others. I still remember the tuna fish crepes she worked especially hard to make. I can see her flipping each crepe. I can hear the sound of canned tuna fish being mixed with cream of chicken soup, and I'm transported back to the bathroom where I was forced to relive the meal a second time. But with one flop came many successes. And my mother’s culinary triumph is her Kielbasa Casserole.
This Polish family recipe was the hit of every block party, holiday dinner, and family event. It is one of the only food heirlooms I have from my Polish side of the family. It combines that perfect balance of sweet and sour we Eastern Europeans are known for, with smokey rich kielbasa, topped with bright brown sugar-glazed onions. It is a perfect dish.
Even though we did not have a lot of family recipes, we found markets and delis to satisfy our cultural cravings. Around the holidays, especially Christmas, my mother would take us to the Polish market in Chelsea, Massachusetts, for all the specialty items. The butcher always welcomed me with a cured salami stick to munch on while my mother shopped. We would buy pierogi, homemade kielbasa, sausages, cheeses, kruschiki cookies, also known as “angel wings,” and oplatki to bless each other with. Oplatki is identical to the Eucharist taken at church, and ours came with nativity scenes stamped into the thin wafer. Following a custom that began in Poland in the 10th century, we would gather around the table on Christmas Eve and go around the room, pairing up with a relative. Your partner holds out his or her piece of oplatki, and as you break off and eat a piece, you grant that person a wish for the upcoming year. The size of the piece dictates the size of the wish granted to you. The traditional wishes were health, wealth, and happiness.
I loved the trips to the market with my mom, not only for the free meat sticks, but for the quality time we got to spend together. It was empowering to see her in her element, speaking the little of the language she knew with the people in the market. On Christmas and Easter, she would take us to Polish mass at a beautiful church in the same neighborhood, full of Polish families from all around Boston. The entire mass is in Polish, so no one in our family, except my mother, knew what the heck was going on. We would have to take cues from others as to when to sit, stand, and kneel. As a kid, I sometimes hated going to that church; everything was so foreign to me. But looking back, I see how special those moments were for my mom. She was connecting to her family in a way I didn’t understand then, but truly appreciate now.
I am currently a chef who assists refugees and immigrants in my community with menu planning and execution of their treasured recipes. This work has inspired me to dig deeper into my own heritage and experiment more with the classics of Polish cuisine. I recently perfected my pierogi dough and plan to make my own sauerkraut. When my mom visited recently, I was excited to show her what I’ve been working on, to break bread with her and my dad over some Polish favorites. It is food that brings family together. Even if the tuna fish crepes try to tear you apart, the Kielbasa Casserole will always mend the bond.
Katie Kirwan is a chef and writer who lives in Missoula, Montana, and loves to tell stories through food. She is the manager of the cooking program for United We Eat, which celebrates and supports chefs from different cultures who are new residents of Missoula. She also leads cooking demonstrations for her children's book series, The 9 Lives of Charlie the Chicken Mushroom, created to get kids excited about cooking and to teach healthy habits young. She can be found on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify.
(Family Secret Recipe, Shhhhhhhhhhhh…)
3 lb. kielbasa
12 oz. chili sauce
1 1/2 c. ketchup
3/4 c. hot water
1 T. red wine vinegar
1 bay leaf
4 whole allspice
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1/2 c. brown sugar
optional: 1/2 c. red wine
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Slice kielbasa into 1-inch pieces, and sauté until lightly golden brown.
Combine chili sauce, ketchup, hot water, red wine vinegar, bay leaf, and allspice in a bowl.
Place kielbasa in a casserole dish, and cover with sauce.
Cover with sliced onion.
Sprinkle brown sugar on top.
Bake uncovered for 30 minutes.
If using wine, pour over the top.
Continue baking for another 20 - 30 minutes until bubbly and onions are slightly browned.
Enjoy with buttered egg noodles or potatoes and bread.