During this summer’s World Cup, Timothy Gee, executive chef at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, in New Brunswick, N.J., seized the opportunity to serve a cuisine that most of his customers likely don’t see much of: Eastern European. On the menu? Kielbasa and sauerkraut, pierogies with caramelized onions and buttery braised cabbage. “It’s not the kind of food that we serve too often, but it is something we feature during theme days in our retail services,” Gee says.
Gee isn’t the only one serving the hearty peasant fare, which turns simple, inexpensive ingredients like potatoes, onions, cabbage and muscle meats into deeply flavorful, satisfying dishes.
When deciding on an Eastern European-themed menu for his Globetrotter foodservice station, Kennesaw State University Campus Executive Chef Billy Skiber offered some dishes that felt familiar to students while still giving them the opportunity to try something new. “When people think Eastern European, they right away think Russian. So we try to show more than that to educate guests,” Skiber says. (Editor’s note: While three-fourths of Russia is in Asia, the landmass west of the Ural Mountains is in Europe.)
Skiber’s recent Romanian, Georgian and Armenian menu does just that. It serves up ciorba de fasole—a classic Romanian bean and smoked pork soup with white beans, chickpeas, mushrooms and whole smoked pig’s feet. For a protein, he serves Armenian-style lamb shanks braised in a tomato sauce along with eggplant, green bell pepper and onion. On the side there’s muraturi asortate, or Romanian pickled vegetables, and a rich Georgian cheese bread called khachapuri, made with yogurt, mozzarella, cream cheese and butter.
Playing to the seasons
At Rush University Medical Center, in Chicago, Retail Food Service Operations Manager James Dravenack’s Friday lunch buffets often center around a seasonal or ethnic theme. And since Eastern European food’s inherent richness is the perfect antidote to cold weather, Dravenack often rolls out a Polish menu when the mercury drops.
Dishes include golumpki, or stuffed cabbage rolls; Polish-style potato pancakes; and kapusta, or Polish sauerkraut. To keep things from getting too heavy, he’ll also serve a light fish like pike or trout with a cucumber sauce. Pierogies usually make an appearance, too. “I’ll generally do the potato type with grilled onions because it offers a vegetarian option,” Dravenack says. Sometimes, he’ll mix in Russian-style fare like sour cream- and caviar-stuffed potatoes, plus cold dishes such as creamed herring, pickled beets and borscht. And for dessert, it’s kolache (a Czechoslovakian pastry with fruit filling), poppy seed cake or doughnutlike pastries called paczki.
And though the menu is expansive, it’s by no means difficult to execute. Rather than making dishes with unusual or hard-to-find ingredients, “I kind of design my menu around the ingredients that I can get,” Dravenack says.
All day, every day
Several years ago, Muhlenberg College, in Allentown, Pa., opened the Noshery, an integrated kosher facility within the dining commons. While the offerings are as varied as curried tofu and chicken shawarma, the Noshery also dishes up plenty of classic Jewish comfort foods. Regulars include matzo soup with housemade chicken broth, sweet noodle kugel, potato and cheese or fruit blintzes, mushroom stroganoff, knishes, and even Sunday brunch with bagels, lox and cream cheese.
The Noshery hasn’t been a hit just with Muhlenberg’s Jewish population, which accounts for nearly 40% of the student body. Located in an area with few commercial kosher dining venues, it’s also become a favorite of the public. “We have guests from as far as New Jersey dine with us. Last year we found out that we were highlighted on the KosherGPS app,” says Unit Marketing Coordinator Evan Rehrig. The growing popularity even spurred the development of Muhlenberg’s Kosher Catering program, which offers favorites like beef brisket, stuffed cabbage, potato pancakes and chocolate babka.
Honoring tradition—to a point
Most of the ingredients in Eastern European dishes are simple and feel familiar to customers. But if a recipe calls for something that simply won’t play well, most operators have no problem tweaking a recipe. “Pork blood is an ingredient used to make kiszka, or Polish blood sausage. Although kiszka is a traditional Polish food, Americans might find it less appealing. Therefore, I like to stick to traditional items made with familiar ingredients,” Dravenack says.
And if a very hearty recipe seems too heavy, it might get a healthy mini makeover. Dravenack will often cut back on a recipe’s salt content to meet the hospital’s dietary sodium guidelines. At Kennesaw, the fat is sometimes dialed back, too. “If the dish was something that’s fried, like a potato pancake, we’d do it on the griddle so it’s not so greasy. And if it’s fried with lard, we’ll use another fat,” Skiber says.
Still, the consensus is that it’s important to preserve a dish’s classic elements. “Since we only serve [Eastern European fare] a couple times a year, I like to keep it traditional. I want it to have an authentic flavor,” Gee says.