PHOTO: Hardie Grant Books
Laura Brehaut/Postmedia News
Originally published on January 11, 2013;
Professional boozehound, chef and author Benny Roff wasn’t always a vodka fan. It could be said that he took the long road in his appreciation of both vodka and Polish cuisine. Roff travelled the world while working as a chef along the way at restaurants such as Le Bernardin in New York City, Jardinière in San Francisco and Kensington Place in London. Upon returning to his native Australia in 2006, Roff started his Polish education as bartender and then manager of Borsch, Vodka and Tears – a restaurant/bar in the Windsor suburb of Melbourne.
Founder and former owner Andrzej Kaczmarski derived the evocative name from a Polish proverb about drinking piołunówka (Polish absinthe): “First is drunk for health; second for pleasure; third for tears; fourth is for madness.” Roff describes the restaurant as looking and feeling “like some kind of dive in an old part of Kraków” and while the décor, food and drink are distinctly Polish “the easy-going crowds are most definitely modern and Australian.”
By Roff’s estimate, the restaurant has approximately 100 different vodkas in house at any given time, including clear, infused, fruit, oak-matured and herbal vodkas. This varied vodka collection provided the perfect opportunity for exploration and Roff started by tasting two or three different clear vodkas in a sitting, and comparing them. His appreciation for vodka grew and spawned further research, which he compiled for staff as a survival guide after an encounter with a particularly difficult customer.
“[The customer] was asking me a lot of pointed questions and was really quite pompous. I’d done a lot of research on vodka and I never tried to lord it over people but this fellow really lorded it over me and I thought to myself, ‘Well I don’t really want anybody else to have to go through that,’” Roff says. “I basically wrote a note for every single vodka in the place. And also, I said you could be asked this kind of question by this kind of customer and feel free to tell them this. It wasn’t always highly complimentary,” he laughs.
This staff survival guide became the impetus for Roff’s book Borsch, Vodka and Tears: Food to Drink With (Hardie Grant Books, 2012). “I learned of a whole world of complexity reflecting the geographical origins and the base ingredients of the drink,” Roff writes. In the book, he shares the history of the restaurant as well as an in-depth look at vodka: its history, distillation techniques, notable vodkas, how to taste vodka, pairing vodka and food, and 37 vodka cocktail recipes.
One of the key misconceptions Roff seeks to dispel in the book is that there are no discernible differences between vodkas – that they’re characterless and only good for mixing. “I’ve had people who are booze pundits tell me, ‘Surely there’s no real complexity – it must just be mouthfeel that’s the difference between them,’” he says. “I don’t think that’s entirely true although there isn’t a strong, tangible language used to describe vodka the way there is for wine, Cognac, whiskey or beer, or any of those drinks with lots of flavour just there on the palate.”
Roff offers readers notes on pairing vodka with food, detailing both the basic concepts of food and drink pairing, as well as the subjectivity and fun involved.  “It’s much easier to match with food than a really strong spirit,” he says. “Spirits do get matched with food now and then – Cognacs and Armagnacs tend to go with desserts – but vodka can go with the main course and the entrée and every part of the meal. It’s very exciting that way.” He prefers to drink his vodka neat and, depending on the vodka, at room temperature, and frequently with food. “I might stretch to do a martini but I think that a good, clear vodka, or one of the light-flavoured vodkas like the angelica vodka, is fantastic by itself,” Roff says. “It’s even better if you have a bit of rye bread and a pickled herring or something. It’s quite amazing. I would never have eaten pickled herring before I started work with the Poles but it’s an acquired taste and I’ve acquired it.”
The subtle flavours of Polish cuisine are explored in the third chapter of the book with sections on appetizers, soups, sides, mains and desserts. Roff consulted with restaurant co-owner and chef Philip Tait (Disclosure: Tait is a friend of the writer.) – founder Kaczmarski’s son-in-law – to compile the collection, which includes recipes for traditional dishes such as Bigos (Hunter’s Stew) and Pierogi (recipe below), bestselling dishes such as Potato Blintzes (recipe below), and personal favourites such as Żurek – a fermented rye soup. “Żurek is definitely a really Polish thing. We’ve tried putting it on the menu time and time again but it’s just very hard to sell fermented rye soup to the public, which is annoying,” Roff says. “I love it and Phil [Tait] loves it so we put it in the book. If anybody wants to make it and they’ve got three days, some rye and some good, live culture get stuck into it. It’s an amazing soup.”
Roff has spent his life travelling, eating and drinking, and he admits that before his work at Borsch, Vodka and Tears, he had no idea that “Polish food and Polish booze had such a magnificent pedigree.” These aspects of Polish culture are ripe for discovery, and re-discovery in terms of vodka, which is among the most popular branded spirits in the world but widely misunderstood. Roff suggests you hold the cola and the lemonade and really taste the distinct differences between vodkas. “There’s a world of flavour out there albeit very subtle,” he says. “I’d like to help people reach another milestone in their voyage of gustatory discovery.”
Printed with permission from Borsch, Vodka and Tears: Food to Drink With (Hardie Grant Books) by Benny Roff
30 ml (1 fl oz) Żubrówka vodka
¼ lime, cut into 2 wedges
approximately 120 ml (4 fl oz) cloudy apple juice
1. Fill a 295 ml (10 fl oz) highball glass to the brim with ice.
2. Add the vodka, squeeze in the lime juice and drop the wedges into the glass. Top with cloudy apple juice and serve immediately.
serves 1
(Placki Ziemniaczane)
500 g (1 lb 2 oz) potatoes with the skin left on, coarsely chopped
1 egg
½ onion, coarsely chopped
45 g (1½ oz/¼ cup) potato flour
1 teaspoon salt
vegetable oil, for frying
1. Put all of the ingredients, except the oil, into a food processor and process to make a batter — there should still be bits of potato and onion floating around. It’s quite a forgiving recipe, but a totally smooth batter is a bit much. The batter at this stage is quite liquid. Alternatively you can grate the onion and potato and combine with the remaining ingredients in a bowl.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a cast-iron frying pan or flat griddle plate over a medium–low heat. You really do need cast iron, as no other surface seems to work — if you don’t have a pan, try using the grill plate of your barbecue, just make sure it’s clean first.
3. Spoon ¼ cup of the batter into the pan at a time, spreading it out to form a little round pancake. Cook for 5 minutes, or until they are set on the top, then turn over and cook for a further 5 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove from the pan and set aside. Repeat with more oil and the remaining batter to make about 12 blintzes.
4. Once you have cooked the blintzes the first time, heat 2 tablespoons of oil in the same pan over medium–high heat. Return the blintzes to the pan, working in batches, and cook until golden brown and crisp on both sides. Serve immediately with your chosen accompaniments.
serves 4
for pierogi dough:
325 g (11½ oz) plain (all-purpose) flour
1 egg, lightly beaten, plus extra, for brushing
185 ml (6 fl oz/¾ cup) milk
Making the dough:
1. Place the flour in a bowl and make a well in the centre (alternatively you can do the whole thing in an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment). Add the egg and mix until it is well combined. Put the milk into a saucepan and scald it (that is, heat it until it starts bubbling and threatening to rise up). Immediately add it to the flour mixture and mix through. Knead the dough for 5 minutes until it is smooth and elastic. Wrap in plastic wrap and leave it for 15 minutes to rest.
2. Divide the dough into six portions — cover any that you aren’t working with to prevent them from drying out. Roll out a piece of dough on a lightly floured work surface until it is thin enough to see your hands through. You can use a pasta machine to do this if you prefer. When the dough is thin enough, use a pastry cutter to cut out circles with an 8 cm (3¼ inch) diameter. Repeat until all the dough is used up — you should have about 45 circles. Arrange the circles on sheets of baking paper in layers.
Making the pierogi:
3. To make the pierogi, place 1 teaspoon of your chosen filling (make sure the filling is cool) into the centre of each circle. Brush one half of the rim with lightly beaten egg, then fold the circle carefully in half, trying to leave as little excess air in the pierogi as possible, and press the edge to seal. The pierogi can be stored at this stage on layers of baking paper. You can freeze them successfully for up to 3 months.
Cooking the pierogi:
4. To cook the pierogi, bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil. Add the pierogi, in batches if necessary (add roughly the number of pierogi that would cover the surface of the pot in a single layer), and cook for about 3 minutes, or until the pasta is al dente.
5. It is perfectly acceptable to brush the pierogi with a little melted butter and serve them as is, but at the vodka bar we like to take it a step further and sauté them until they are a little bit crisp. Sauté them in a little vegetable oil and butter with their individual garnish until they start to brown, then serve them with a dollop of sour cream.
6. Pierogi is one of the things we serve as a late-night bar snack at Borsch, but it is not convenient to have many boiling pots and pans running all night waiting for a few orders so we opt to deep-fry them. All you do is fill a deep-fryer or large heavy-based saucepan with enough oil to come one-third of the way up the pan and heat until it is 180°C (350°F), or until a cube of bread dropped into the oil browns in 15 seconds. Drop the pierogi into the hot oil and remove them when they’re golden brown, about 5 minutes. I must confess that this is one of my favourite ways to eat them, served with a side of sour cream with some capsicum salsa mixed into it and some chopped fresh dill. I’d recommend trying it late at night!
makes 45 pierogi
(Pierogi Ruskie)
for cheese and potato filling:
250 g (9 oz) starchy (mealy) potatoes such as desiree, sebago or russet, washed
200 g (7 oz/¾ cup) quark cheese (farmer’s cheese), or ricotta (see note)
80 g (2¾ oz) butter
1 onion, finely chopped, plus 1 extra, sliced, to garnish
5 mint sprigs, leaves finely chopped (optional)
1. Put the potatoes, whole and unpeeled, into a saucepan with enough water to cover generously, add some salt and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes for very small potatoes, up to 45 minutes for very large, or until they are cooked through (they are done when you can stab them with a paring knife and they fall straight off again).
2. Drain and peel the skins while they’re still hot, you can let them cool a little and you can use a tea towel to protect your hands, but potatoes don’t mash as well when cool, and they don’t taste as good and are not as good for you when you peel them before boiling. Mash the potatoes using a mouli, ricer or potato masher. Alternatively, you can place it in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add the quark cheese and mix thoroughly.
3. Heat 20 g (¾ oz) of the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until it is lightly browned. Remove from the heat and add to the potato and cheese mixture. Agnieszka’s Babcia (Granny) uses fresh mint in her mixture, if you want to give it a try, add it at the end. Season with salt and a little black pepper, to taste. Use the filling to make the pierogi and cook it following the instructions for Polish Dumplings / Pierogi above.
4. The traditional garnish for this type of pierogi is fried onion strips. Cook the onion slices in the remaining butter in a frying pan over medium heat until they turn golden brown. If you can’t be bothered or it’s all too hard, I’ve seen this type of garnish (which is also used in German cookery for spätzle) substituted with the crispy fried shallots that you find in Southeast Asian grocery stores. It’s not the same, but it’s tasty and easy.
serves 8
NOTE: Quark cheese is known as farmer’s cheese in the United States. It is essentially a bit creamier, drier and tangier than its Aussie counterpart. It can be found in Continental delicatessens. If you use ricotta cheese, add a tablespoon of sour cream to make it a bit zingier.
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