Dec 24, 2008

Christmas Eve Wishes and Memories

I am having family over for a tradition Polish Vigil dinner. Have a great Christmas and best wishes for the New year! let's hope things begin to turn this ponderous USA barge around toward justice, peace, right commonwealth, universal health and recovery from the destructive greed of the plutocrats.

During my childhood, we always celebrated with a non-meat dinner--in that sense very similar to the traditional Italian Christmas eve seafood dinner--called Wygilia, the "vigil"; I have forgotten some of the symbolism, but there is supposed to be at least 13 ingredients (for the 12 apostles and Christ, she said, though how that got dragged into a Christmas vigil I don't know; sort of like instant "future shock"? As in Joseph to himself: "I don't think he'll be a cabinet maker, from all of this portentous stuff; stock broker? rabbi? start his own business . . . ?

I remember my mom spending days in the kitchen to prepare dozens of pierogi, and while I don't have her original recipes (or her skill), I have taken my recipes from a Polish cookbook I bought years ago in a second hand shop (The Art of Polish Cooking by Alina Żerańska, Doubleday: 1968). Here's the menu we have been doing for a number of years since my wife and I decided to restart the tradition after moving to California.

Appetizer: Pickled Herring in sour cream served with boiled, buttered, and parsleyed small red potatoes and pickled beets on the side.

First Course: Mushroom and barley soup (I make it with a combination of white mushrooms and dried wild mushrooms. Broth is made from celery, parsley root, carrots and onions) Finish with sour cream and fresh dill.

Second: Kapusta (stewed sauerkraut--finely sliced onions cooked in a little oil, then button mushrooms (criminis if you can get them, and one year I used shiitakes) and s-kraut added; stew for two hours. I always add a little vermouth.)

Third: breaded fish fillets--sauteed in butter--flounder was always traditional--my Dad loved to go flounder fishing in the winter.

Fourth:Pierogi (I always forget to order ahead from our little Polish restaurant in the area ["You must give us three weeks!" the owners always lament when I try to wheedle them at the last minute], so I end up, as I will this year, using Mrs. T's potato and onion.) My mom used to make them by hand in batches: homemade dough and fillings of egg-yolk and farmer's cheese; mashed potatoes and onion; prune. After she boiled them and they came to the surface, she'd finish them in a big pan of slow cooked, thin-sliced and caramelized onions.)

Fifth: Compote (dried fruits: prunes, pears, apricots, apples, raisins boiled with sugar and water; I usually add a cinnamon stick, some nutmeg, vanilla, cognac or armagnac, lemon slices and orange peel.) Poppyseed roll or Christmas Babka (large golden raisins inside and cinnamon sugared crust) served on the side. I'm afraid I can't bake like my wife could when she was here with us, so I settle for a Pannetone from Trader Joe's.

Tea and/or coffee.

I usually serve a freezer-chilled Riesling with the dinner. My maternal grandparents (this was back in the fifties) used to drink shots of krupnik or prune vodka or Four Roses (!) for toasts.

Oh, and then the ritual toasts: because it was Catholic, of course, we used to obtain sheets of the Eucharistic unleavened bread wafers, though I've forgotten the name. (We have a Polish church here in the area, but I stopped getting it from them years ago--they still send around holiday fliers for orders.) Everyone got a square, and starting with the oldest down to the youngest (kids excepted--they always got confused) a wish or a toast or a blessing, followed by an exchange of a small piece of the bread, kisses on the cheek or lips (depending, of course . . .). And usually drinks aplenty, with mom rushing back and forth to make sure all was in order.

The compote I made last night. I'll buy the fish fillets today and be cooking all afternoon-- oh if only I had remembered to order the pierogi!

Have a wonderful holiday. Don't watch any version of A Christmas Carol except the one with Alistair Sim.

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