Enter the Kiełbasa
During Poland’s Golden Age (1385–1569), exciting new imports—the spoils of trade and war—were collected from around Europe and happily put to use. We might therefore call this period the “Smoked Meat Age.” It’s more accurate. After all, this was when Poles developed their taste for rich, fatty sausages laced with expensive spices; when they entered the Kielbasa.
Countries are like people; most have a thing that comes naturally and fits picture-perfect. Amongst other things, Poland has sausage. And thankfully for us, they share. Like my buddy Wojciech, for example. I wasn’t in Wrocław more than 20 minutes before he prepared a truly classic midnight snack: Krakowska Sucha kielbasa with rye and butter, and some cold Żywiec beers.
A few days later, he and Karolina took me to see Franciszek Oborski. Franek is an art historian who lives at the Zamek Wojnowice. A castle about 25 km outside of town, his pad triples as an art gallery, a country inn, and a highly-regarded restaurant. Franek is a gracious host and a man of stellar priorities. We weren’t there long before he served the most delicious kielbasa I’d ever tasted in my life.
I was pretty damn shameless in my enthusiasm, but Franek was patient. He let me blab, then smiled a big Polish St. Nick smile and dropped this gem:
No joke, the soup I was gobbling had crazy kielbasa. You couldn’t dip your spoon without finding at least three delicious stragglers. Not to mention the cold cut plate. But what was he getting at? I didn’t pay it much thought, and then it struck me. Brilliant.
When Franek was young and broke, and had only a single slice of sausage to liven up his rye, he would push that slice over his bread as he ate. He “chased the kielbasa” to the end of his meal. He stretched his flavor-dollar to the fullest, and cherished that final bite twice as much. This had to be simultaneously one of the wisest and most moving things I had ever heard in my life. To this day, it’s impossible to think about my Polish friends without getting sentimental. After all, they taught me a valuable life-lesson: kielbasa rules.
Good Polish kielbasa is versatile like bacon and plump like bosom. Its smokey goodness and tubular girth make it a logical substitute for the cigar. A healthy fat content gives it a ribald texture. It woos you with flavor, kills you with kindness, and tempts you with possibility.
It's hard to convey the significance of kielbasa in Poland, but imagine something that nourishes, relaxes, brings people together, washes the dishes, takes you for a walk, makes you pancakes, and irons your underwear. It satiates and comforts, serves and delivers. You can eat it cold, boiled, fried or grilled. You can serve a link with potatoes, or throw slabs in zurek (white borscht) or bigos (rich hunter’s stew). Eat some with breakfast eggs, or on a slice of soft light Rye with sweet butter. Serve it to good friends on lazy afternoons or crisp evenings. Use it as deodorant before a night on the town. And if your curiosity is piqued and you live near Brooklyn, head down to Steve’s Meat Market in Greenpoint.
The first time I found Steve’s I was heading elsewhere for dinner, but something drew me inside. It was probably the couple hundred links hanging from the rafters, and the “je ne sais quoi” smell that comes from a couple hundred links hanging from the rafters. That, combined with my Pookie-like fever for kielbasa.
Steve’s smokes all of their meats on-premises, and serves 100% pork links. That alone should get the conversation started, but the first thing that struck me was how damn nice they were. They have been in business since 1972, and it's easy to see why. I asked for kielbasa but didn’t know what kind…so they started cutting off pieces. A smooth spicy link, a lean chunky link, a thin hearty link… within 3 minutes I was stuffed. But I also got a crash course in what I liked (the spicy one, the air-dried one), and what I wanted to try (all of the above and a few more). I quickly came to appreciate the variation, and the fact that although most kielbasa are delicious, no two are alike. The butchers at Steve’s were generous, but also super smart. Their product speaks for itself: get a taste and you’ll be back.
Steve’s Posse from L-R:
Jozef, and Sebastian (“Ritchie”)
No joke, you’d have to be Skinflint O'Cheap to walk out of Steve's empty-handed, and even then it doesn’t seem possible if you have hands. Screw it, there is absolutely no reason to leave here empty-handed; if you’re missing both hands, just ask them to throw a bag around your no-hand arm-stumps. And when you do, try one of the following:
- The double-smoked Weselna ($3.75/lb). A great everyday sausage, smooth and tasty. Generously spiced with ground pepper, this link is very versatile. You can enjoy it cold with Rye bread and butter, or piping hot with a frosty Piast.
- The air-dried Kabanosy ($5.00/lb). This is for anyone who has ever bought “Slim Jims” more than once. A thin, dark link with intense flavor. Try it with a Tyskie (Wojciech's favorite), or a cold glass of vodka.
- The Lomzynska ($3.50/lb). The chunkiest and juiciest of the lot, this link was also the least smoky. On the flip side, it had the purest “pork” flavor.
- The Mysliwska ($3.50/lb). Firm and full-bodied, with a medium texture. Nice chunks of fat say "grill me." Flavor-wise it falls somewhere in-between the Lomzynska and the Weselna.
Steve’s also smokes great hams, and I’d suggest some of their homemade Szynka sliced thin enough to appreciate its juicy, melt-in-the mouth goodness. Give the Synka od Kosci (boneless ham) a whirl too. The subtle, restrained taste reminded me of a cob-smoked Vermont variety; both would be equally at ease with pancakes or a sandwich. And if you’re still in the mood, pick up some stuffed cabbage to go; heat it up later and relive the memories. Steve’s niece Melissa will send you off with one of their hilarious bags. (I should add that Melissa is Steve’s vegetarian niece. Which boggles the mind. I can’t imagine being a vegetarian and working here. Einstein already looked into this, and concluded it couldn’t be done.)
On a recent trip to Steve’s, I got off at the wrong subway stop and decided to walk. It turns out I had landed in a sort of Bermuda Triangle of kielbasa. The block of Manhattan Avenue just south of Kent has four meat markets, and both neighborhood hardware stores I passed featured sausage stuffers in their windows. These were good signs.
After scoping out the territory, I committed to the enigmatically named W-Nassau Meat Market. W-Nassau is one of the most crowded butchers I have ever visited, Polish or otherwise. They have been in business since 1981, and (like Steve’s) do their smoking out back. For sheer variety, they can't be beat. They stock everything from smoked ribs and links and hams to Polish breads, hot dishes, and sundry goods. The line is long but moves quickly (thanks to a very efficient staff). No nonsense tho; make your choices, and meet your meat at the register.
I tried four different links from W-Nassau, my favorite of which was their inspirational take on the Weselna ($4.00/lb). One look at the slightly charred skin and you knew “double-smoked” was a pledge they took seriously. Theirs was firmer in texture than Steve’s, with far less pepper and a clear smoky, garlicky flavor. Very aromatic. The Kabanosy ($4.40/lb) was also nicely done, though it tasted a bit milder than I had expected.
W-Nassau's Mysliwska and Podwawelska links (both $4.00/lb) added some beef to the mix, but skip those and give the fresh-smoked Hunter’s Ham ($4.55/lb) a go instead. It makes a great substitute for carrot sticks, especially when paired with some of their delicious light Rye bread and a jar of fresh pickles (made in Maspeth). And that, my friends, is one fine date!
Steve’s Meat Market
104 Nassau Avenue
W-Nassau Meat Market
915 Manhattan Avenue
A Quick Guide to Kielbasa
Kielbasa has almost as many varieties as the word “snow” in Eskimo. To add to the confusion, two versions of the same sausage may taste wildly different. But don’t be deterred; The Porkchop Express has you covered with this wallet-sized list to consult when buying links. Print one out and take it with you. Round off your request with a heartfelt thanks (dziękuję, pronounced something along the lines of dzhiin-quee-yeh), and get your sausage on. And let us know what you find.