The Original Domestic Goddess

(Warsaw Insider, December 2010)

Roll over Nigella. Nela, the late wife of Polish-American pianist Artur Rubinstein, is the original domestic goddess. Her endearing cookbook, packed with recipes for festive and daily meals, celebrates local ingredients and classical dishes.

Guess what Nela cooked at the first party for a sophisticated circle in Rubinstein’s Parisian home? The same dish was presented at their first Hollywood party. And to celebrate John’s, their son, success on Broadway, Nela served it to the crew and cast. And each time, the dish enjoyed rave reviews. Did these people feast on something French studded with “aux”? No, it was the humble bigos.

Commonly translated as the hunter’s stew, bigos is a cabbage and meat affair often served at New Year. The common sentiment contemporary Poles have towards bigos is it’s an uncouth peasant grub and it’s somewhat uncool to be seen in its company. However, Nela gushed about it without bashfulness, so much so you just want to start slicing cabbage.

Nela, a trained ballerina, was born in Lithuania in 1908. Her father, Emil Młynarski, was the founding conductor of the Warsaw Philharmonic. After her marriage in 1932, the couple set up home in France, Spain and eventually, New York. Nela soon discovered her cooking knack. She fed not only her family and friends, but also guests at banquets and balls.

Published in 1983, “Nela’s Cookbook” contains the tastes the Rubinsteins acquired in the international circuit. However, it is mainly about foods from the old country. Poland and Lithuania are two nations whose past was intertwined, and naturally, so were their table manners. The book bears no photos, only illustrations; but the evocative jottings inspire the imagination.

Nela’s Polish recipes come from the era when home cooks whipped up a feast using local products only. That was also the times when nobody batted an eyelid over offal. Without a whiff of squeamishness, she supplied a sub-chapter on calves’ brains and liver, beef’s tongue and tripe.

For neophytes at Polish cuisine, especially those without a Polish granny at hand, the book steps you through the soups, pierogi, cabbage rolls and other staples. For those deft with the local menu, it lets you decode “staropolska” (Old Polish), a word so often bandied around in traditional restaurants. It might come as a mild surprise that Nela had not included the ubiquitous kotlet schabowy (pork cutlet).

As much as Nela loved cooking, she was no slave to the stove, being fully aware that home cooks have career ladders to climb and social events to flutter to. She did not frown on shortcuts like bouillon cubes or pressure cookers. Her tutelage is reasonably easy to follow. But if you come from a different climate zone, you might puzzle at obtaining “freshly cooked beets” without any pointers. Her direction of “dimple it with your fingers in quick staccato jabs” is a display of her musical roots. Non-American readers will appreciate the measurements in grams in addition to the puzzling cups and sticks.

Interspersed among recipes are charming anecdotes of childhood foods, and travel tales such as the scrambled eggs on board the Trans-Siberian railway and sustaining on caviar during the food rationing days in Russia.

For the meat-free Christmas-eve dinner, will you be brave enough to make Nela’s carp in jelly? If not, have a go at the innocuous barsch, coulibiac and mushroom sides. Bake a “babka” or cheesecake. Or deviate from tradition and serve kisiel, a fruity jelly-like dessert that Nela preferred as a light but satisfying finale to a heavy meal. Then boldly start the New Year with a cauldron of bigos à la Nela.

(Warsaw Insider, December 2010)