Cooking the East European Way: Potaptsi

There are times in my life when I think I will just give up on real food and be happy with appetizers. At really meaty restaurants, the appetizer menu is often the only refuge for a vegetarian, and a couple of appetizers are usually enough to take care of my appetite.

There is a Yiddish phrase I just learned, "“A lek un a shmeck," which means "a taste and a smell" and isn't generally used in a complimentary way -- the phrase either surfaces when somebody's portions are too small, or when somebody has done an especially shoddy job on something. "He was supposed to rebuild the engine, but listen to this banging!" someone will cry. "I asked for a complete job and he gives me a lek un a shmeck?"

But I'm not sure that I don't prefer a lek un a shmeck, especially when what I am tasting and smelling is delicious. The potaptsi, as an example, which Discover Ukraine insists in a popular Ukrainian appetizer. It's easy enough to describe: It's essentially an open-faced grilled cheese sandwich with garlic and tomatoes.

But, boy, a simple description does not do it justice. Listen, I am a patron of the American grilled cheese sandwich. A partisan, even. I like it on white bread with American cheese, even though I am pretty sure I am just consuming cheese-colored petroleum on bread-shaped sawdust. I judge greasy spoons on the quality of their grilled cheese, mostly because I usually can't eat anything else, but, then, if you can't make a descent grilled cheese how can you be trusted with anything else?

This being said, I'm not sure I can go back to grilled cheese. The potaptsi is superior to it in every way. To begin with, your typical grilled cheese sandwich is only fried on the outside, leaving the bread slightly spongy, while the potaptsi bread is grilled on both sides to a lovely golden brown. This makes the bread more toastlike, and firmer, which is not only helps it support its ingredients, but also means the sandwich gets more butter or oil fried into it.

There is a reason we so often pair grilled cheese with tomato soup -- the tomato's umami flavor balances the sweeter dairy of the sandwich cheese well. But it's hard to add tomato directly to a grilled cheese sandwich -- in my experience, the results tend to be a wet, sloppy sandwich. I suspect the grilling process liquefies the tomato somewhat, and it's the sort of thing a talented chef can correct for, but the potaptsi solves the problem in a simpler way. Once the bread is fried, you add the tomato and grated cheese, along with fresh minced garlic, and put it in the oven at a relatively low heat for 5-7 minutes. This melts the cheese and lightly bakes the tomato, but maintains the structural integrity of the sandwich.

Finally, the recipe I worked with called for adding "verdure," which, from context, seems to simply mean "herbs." I added green tomatoes, as I had them on hand, but one expects any of the herbs popular in Eastern Europe would be a nice addition: dill, bay leaf, maybe horseradish. Grilled cheese in the US is not typically served with garlic and herbs, and, for Pete's sake, why not? 

There was apparently a time when we were actually afraid of garlic. Anti-Italian sentiments in America blamed the supposed hot temper of the Italians on their "spicy" food, and the spice in question was garlic. Maybe that's why the American grilled cheese sandwich is so very plain. Well, I can't go back. I don't care if the garlic angries up my blood. I don't care if, as the Chicago Tribune complained in 1875, garlic is the unpleasant flavor of the workman's tenement. I don't care if eating it makes me somehow more Italian.

Besides you cut the crust off a potaptsi, so it's a very small sandwich.

Just a lek really. Maybe just enough for a schmeck too.