If you know somebody who grew up Polish-American in Buffalo, all you have to do is breathe the word.
The reaction will be immediate. Eyes will grow dreamy. Expressions, wistful. Noses will twitch with the memory of long-ago scents almost primal in their appeal: bacon grease or salt pork, vinegar, salt, and layered above it all, the ripe, earthy aroma of that titan of immigrant vegetables, the cabbage.
"Nothing would say Sunday more to me, growing up, then driving to 97 Gatchell Street on the East Side after Mass," remembers Richard Kozak, a local teacher who grew up eating the Polish dish in at least two varieties, his grandma's and his mother's.
"You could smell the kapusta and hear Stan Jasinski on the radio -- before we even entered the house."
Kapusta is perhaps the unfussiest, least glamorous of all Buffalo's ethnic dishes.
Made from a mere handful of ingredients -- and starring that hardworking staple of Eastern and Northern European cooking, green cabbage -- it is simple, filling, and so savory it easily wins over steak-and-potatoes stalwarts. Piled on a plate it looks like nothing so much as some tangled greenish-brown seaweed. Eye appeal may be lacking, but it vanishes so fast you'd be hard-pressed to notice.
Now, for how to make it properly. Everybody in Western New York with a Polish grandma or two knows a recipe for kapusta that is their don't-mess-with-it favorite. Tweaks to the basic formula -- acidity, vegetable, a bit of meat if desired -- don't change the essence of the dish, which is the cabbage rendered in all its healthy, flavor-absorbing glory. ("Kapusta," in Polish, means cabbage.)
I learned to make kapusta from my late grandmother, Estelle Barabasz Zoladz, and her dish was so easy I had the recipe memorized after the first time. She cut her cabbage finely, as for cole slaw, but I cut mine thicker because it yields a crunchier dish.
Celery salt is the secret spice in my grandmother's dish, which contains no sugar or other competing flavors. She would serve it alongside chicken or pork, and never measured her ingredients as she threw them into the pan.
Traditionally, at a Polish-American meal, kapusta was never the star. It's a side dish, whether made meatlessly and paired with pierogi on a Wigilia plate on Christmas Eve, or as the bed for sausage, stew, or other savories.
In our family, where I make kapusta a few times a month, the cabbage often stands alone, perhaps with some good bread on the side. My husband, who grew up eating homemade Italian red sauce and would previously cross the street to avoid a head of cabbage, has been known to eat a few platefuls of this as a meal and consider himself well-fed. "Smells like a Polish kitchen!" he says, coming into the hall from places in the house where the scent of frying kapusta has drifted.
Maybe not so far from the East Side, after all.
Now, on to the recipes -- one from my grandmother, and two more to give you options.
>Estelle Zoladz's Clinton Street Kapusta
1 whole head cabbage (medium-sized), cut into slivers a bit wider than for cole slaw
5 or 6 strips of bacon (whatever fits in the pan you're using)
2 tablespoons bacon grease
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup water
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large frying pan with a wide, flat bottom, fry the bacon until it's to the degree of doneness you like. Remove it from the pan and drain the bacon strips on a plate or paper towel. Empty the same pan of all but roughly 2 tablespoons of bacon grease. Add the cabbage, then pour the water and the vinegar over it. Cover and cook over medium heat, turning the cabbage occasionally to keep it from sticking. After the cabbage has begun to reduce, sprinkle it with black pepper and coarse salt to taste and mix in. Sprinkle celery salt generously over the pan as well. Cover and continue to cook, turning regularly. After about 15 minutes, chop the bacon strips and stir them into the cabbage. Cook until the cabbage is reduced to about 1/3 or 1/2 of its original volume (about 20 to 30 minutes total cooking time).
You can serve your kapusta on the crunchier side, or cook it down until it is soft, almost like sauerkraut, which is how my grandmother liked it.
>Diane Cegielski Kozak's Gatchell Street Kapusta
1/2 pound bacon
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup vinegar
3/4 cup sugar
1 medium head cabbage
Water to cover
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
Cut bacon in small pieces and fry until well done. Add flour to pan and stir until well blended with no lumps. Remove from heat and add vinegar and sugar. Return pan to flame and bring ingredients to a boil. Set aside. Shred cabbage, thicker than for coleslaw. Cover with water in a separate saucepan and bring to a boil. Take 2 cups of water out. Add bacon mixture and salt and pepper and simmer for 1 hour.
>Rick Kozak's Grandma's Meatless Kapusta with Dried Peas
1 cup whole dried yellow peas
1 quart sauerkraut
1/2 cup mushrooms, chopped
Salt and pepper
Wash peas and soak in water overnight. Cook in same water (add more water if you have to), until tender, about one hour. Rinse sauerkraut. Wash and chop mushrooms. Cover sauerkraut and mushrooms with water in saucepan, add salt and cook for one hour. Add peas, put into buttered covered baking dish and bake for 30 minutes at 325 degrees. Smelt or anchovies can be added to this dish for a meatless supper, such as on Wigilia, the Polish Christmas Eve meal.