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The Combination Plate at Kramarczuk's in Minneapolis

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Welcome to Eater Elements, a series that explores the ideas and ingredients of noteworthy dishes.

A true icon of the Minneapolis restaurant community, the James Beard Award-winning Kramarczuk's has been supplying the city with sausages since 1954. In 1976 the family opened a restaurant, serving up the Eastern European favorites that founders Wasyl and Anna Kramarczuk brought with them from their native Ukraine. Today, those recipes remain largely unaltered and general manager Nick Kramarczuk says one of the best ways to sample them is with the restaurant's signature Combination Plate.

On the menu since the restaurant first opened, the Combination Plate lets customers sample the "greatest hits" of the menu, including the legendary sausage and cabbage rolls. When asked what it is about his family's particular kind of comfort food that has kept customers coming decade after decade, Kramarczuk says the food "reflects the cultural background of the neighborhood" and is "a very authentic way to experience food that is indicative of the neighborhood." Familiar Eastern European dishes like pyrohy and sauerkraut reflect the family and the community's "heritage and lineage." Plus they're tasty, says Eater Minneapolis editor Claire Stanford:

"Not only is the Combination Plate a truly epic amount of food, each part of it is so carefully crafted, from the pillowy pierogi to the giant cabbage roll to the coup de grâce: A grilled-to-order Kramarczuk's sausage. Both the restaurant and the meat market are a Minneapolis institution, held over from the days that the Northeast part of the city was full of Eastern European immigrants. It's just so wonderful to drive down Hennepin and see a part of Minneapolis history, still family-owned and still thriving; you'll see Kramarczuk's sausages everywhere around here, from backyard barbecues to the Twins' stadium menu."

Below, the elements of the Kramarczuk's Combination Plate:

Kramarczuks combination plate

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1. The Sausage

Diners can take their pick, but the most frequently ordered option on the Combination Plate is the smoked Ukrainian sausage, also known as kovbaca. The sausages are made in the adjacent production facility, using the family's time-honored recipe. The sausage is mostly comprised of Durak pork sirloin, chosen for its good marbling and lack of antibiotics. The sirloin itself is fairly lean, and Kramarczuk describes it as "almost like ham." He explains that when it comes to making sausage, the family likes the cut of meat to provide the main flavor, as opposed to masking the meat with spices. To that end, the recipe also calls for a little bit of pork trim. The meat is mixed with a simple (though private) blend of spices including black pepper and garlic before being stuffed in a natural hog casing and smoked.

During service at the restaurant, the sausages are grilled on a charbroiler. Kramarczuk says this technique developed out of the restaurant's need for quick and easy service, but he says now he prefers this method because it adds flavor to the sausage as it sears.

2. The Cabbage Roll

The single most popular item on the menu, the Kramarczuk's cabbage rolls (also known as holubets) are well-known in Minneapolis. The filling is a blend of ground pork butt and mock tender beef (a cut similar to chuck). Both meats are flavorful, Kramarczuk says, and the pork butt adds a necessary fat to the filling, which is completed with basic cooked white rice. The filling is formed into "elongated meatballs" and then rolled into cabbage leaves "like a burrito." The rolls are then baked just until the meat is fully cooked.

One of the defining features of the Kramarczuk's cabbage rolls is the creamy tomato sauce served with them. It's a simple, roux-based sauce, seasoned with a healthy dose of garlic and onions. Kramarczuk says that while eating cabbage rolls with tomato sauce isn't necessarily common, it is the way his family has served the dish for generations.

3. The Pyrohy

The pyrohy, or pierogi or varenyky as they're sometimes called, are made by hand at the restaurant every day. The recipe begins with a basic unleavened dough, made with flour, water, egg, salt, and a little bit of sugar. After the dough is mixed, it's sheeted. The dough is then cut. Customers have their choice of fillings, and Kramarczuk says the most popular flavor is potato and cheese. That filling — "sort of like cheesy mashed potatoes" — is made by combining boiled potatoes and cream cheese. Each dumpling gets a small handful of filling before being boiled. Kramarczuk notes that even though the dumplings are not measured or weighed, they are remarkably uniform, reflecting the staff's expertise.

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4. The Sauerkraut

"People ask why we serve cabbage with cabbage," Kramarczuk says of the sauerkraut served at the family restaurant. "But we're Eastern European, so you can never have too much cabbage." Due to space and time limitations, the family does not ferment the sauerkraut in house, rather they take already fermented cabbage and stew it with ham, bacon, salt, pepper, and other spices that Kramarczuk can't divulge. He says much of the flavor comes from the bacon, but that the mixture remains sour and tart. He says the sauerkraut pairs particularly well the tomato sauce that tops the cabbage rolls: "It takes the place of noodles, you could say."

5. The Extras

The plate is finished off with a dill pickle spear and horseradish sour cream. Kramarczuk says the family is always on the hunt for the juiciest, most crispy classic deli-style pickle. The horseradish sour cream is made by combining a hefty amount of ground horseradish to sour cream. The final product has the "spicy burn" of horseradish and the cool, creamy mouthfeel of sour cream, making it "one of the best things you can eat" with the pyrohy. That said, Kramarczuk explains that all the flavors on the plate really do pair well together, so diners don't need to worry about whether they are combining the components in the "right" way.

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