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The Taste of Wigilia

by Staś Kmieć

“Gość w dom – Bóg w dom” (a guest in the home is God in the home); and there is nothing as heavenly as the savory aroma to the senses as one enters a Polish home for Christmas Eve dinner, but it is the indelible flavors that continue to linger in the memory. It is that taste that brings us together each year to share the wonders of a Polish Wigilia.

In the traditional Polish household, Wigilia is the most important meal of the year, and it is this thought that Poles must continue to embrace. Although the meal is meatless (Advent – the season of penance continues until midnight), there is no shortage of unique festive dishes.

The originality, variety and richness of Polish cooking is not exactly well-known outside of Poland and Polonian circles, but if you have ever had the opportunity of eating good Polish food you will most probably, appreciate and relish it forever.

What makes these foods Polish?
Poles today prepare spaghetti, pizza, and quiche and many of the world’s cuisine. What makes these foods intrinsically Polish is the intricate mélange of historical circumstance, regional custom, religion and taste, which over the centuries has contributed to transforming recipes into symbols – instantly recognizable and shared by both those that prepare the food and those who partake in its delight. Not merely edible mixtures of ingredients, the treasured recipes have become part nourishment, part cultural road map, and part fulfillment of a ritual bestowed with a significance that is greater than it’s capacity to satisfy one’s appetite.

Each household has a different set of food traditions for Wigilia according to Poland’s regional variations, marital circumstances and family status, but each has a unique inheritance to hold on to, maintain and revere.

As stated by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab in The Polish Country Cookbook (Hippocrene Books 2002) — “Each region of Poland had their prepared dishes and quite frankly, served whatever their mothers and grandmothers had served in previous generations.”

Wigilia is an unique portrayal through a culinary prism of the Polish countryside, the characteristic cuisine is inspired by the spirit and beauty of the nation’s lakes, rivers and plains – the recipes wrought from the wealth of produce found therein.

Wherever there are Poles on Christmas Eve, there will be the oplatek wafer. There is much ritual connected with Wigilia (also known as Wilia, and in northeastern Kurpie and Mazury dialect — Zilija). The meal should have a certain number of courses and it will often represent all the elements of the land, lest any of the spirits connected with a particular branch should be forgotten and offended. There are mushrooms from the woods, kasza from the fields, fish from the water, and fruit from the orchard. Meat and animal fats are not eaten on this night, which brings the Advent fast to a close, but there may be as many as three different kinds of soup and fish dishes, followed by poppy-seed cake – a “must,” as poppy-seed is supposed to bring “luck).

In Mazowsze, there can be various numbers of dishes, but the number must be odd; while in Podlasie there are to be twelve dishes – one representing each Apostle. Tradition also demands that an extra place be set for the Christ-child that may arrive taking the form of an unexpected guest or stranger.

Each region of Poland has its own Wigilia specialties. The Kisiel in Podlasie is distinctive to that area alone. Unlike the popular potato-starch red currant pudding, it is an oatmeal dish with cold-pressed oils, sometimes with added milk, along with poppy-seeds, raisins and honey.

Eastern areas of the Podlasie, Podkarpacie and Lublin regions serve Kutia – an ancient dish of poppy-seed mass served with wheat or barley, honey, dried fruit and nuts. The dish found its way into Lower Śląsk and Western Pomorze on account of post-War resettlement in this area from eastern territories seized by the Soviet Union.

Małopolska has Moczka, a soup made from dried plums, while in Śląsk this soup is prepared from a special kind of gingerbread, almonds, raisins, prunes, dried apricots, pears, dried figs, and hazelnuts – all soaked in dark beer. Ślązacy also bake special Zozworki ginger biscuits.

In more recent years, I have often heard the comment that “all these traditions are from a long time ago; in today’s world, why not change with the times?”... but aren’t these traditions worth preserving? For Poles this is a true Christmas.

Soup.

The first course is soup — the most common is a clear beet broth with tiny mushroom-filled dumplings (uszka) floating within. The recipe is dated to the sixteenth century. A translucent dried-mushroom based soup (similar to żurek, but meatless) is served over łazanki (rectangular-shaped egg noodles) or coarsely mashed potatoes. The Śląsk and Wielkopolska areas delight in Zupa Migdałowa (almond soup), often served over rice. A creamed fish soup with dumplings is the course in Pomorze and Kaszuby, close to the Baltic coast. There is even a Śląskie soup called Siemieniotka, which is prepared from hemp seed and served with buckwheat groats (kasza gryczana).

The spelling varies in Yiddish and Russian, but to the Polish, it is Barszcz Polski, not borscht – depending on the area of Poland, czwerowny (red) or biały (white). It is a soup consommé made with clear liquid from either fermented beets or rye f lour. The intensity is the fermented kwas liquid. Shortcuts can be taken, but neither vinegar nor lemon juice can truly approach this customary flavor. The biały barszcz z grzybami (with mushrooms) is common in Kujawy, the east of Poland in

Secondary Dishes.

Two kinds of Kasza (buckwheat groats and millet groats – jaglana) – loaded with nutrients, especially protein, offer a nutty, earthy flavor to balance the palate. Another grain option is Kasza jęczmiena (barley). This reflects the old rural traditions of the past that once dominated this time-honored occurrence. In the ever-changing modern times, it is an important homage to the simple tastes that are in many ways the roots of this seasonal custom.

Kapusta z Grochem (sauerkraut with dried yellow peas) is a dish with a translucent subtle sauce that is a signature Wigilia dish and takes on a special flavor at Christmas. There is also Kapusta kiszone z grzybami (stewed sauerkraut with mushrooms), Ćwikła (pickled beets) – finely grated beetroots with horseradish, Gzybki z kwaśną śmietaną (mushrooms with sour cream) or marinated mushrooms, and Kluski z makiem (egg noodles with honey and poppy seeds).

Kulebiak from Eastern Poland is a fancy-designed pastry pie with a filling of kapusta, mushrooms, onions, nuts seasoned with bay leaves, or it can appear with a filling of salmon, eggs and rice served with a bechamel or white sauce.

Sałatka Jarzynowa, a newer addition to the menu is a popular Polish vegetable salad made mostly with potatoes, green peas, carrots, onion, dill pickle, hard boiled eggs, mustard and mayonnaise.

Goląbki in a meatless form — made of rice and mushrooms or kasza and mushrooms, is a dish that some families enjoy.

Fish.

 The Polish love fish – having easy access to pike, trout, perch and most importantly carp – to which is attributed invigorating power. Fish from the rivers and lakes was served more often than salt water varieties. Southern Poland is less likely to include fish dishes in the Wigilia meal.

Buying or catching fresh carp (still alive) and having it exist in the bath tub or large basin is a typical Polish tradition, even to some degree today. The traditional Polish Christmas fish enjoys a life as a family pet for a few days before its ultimate destiny in the kitchen.

Karp po Polsku is carp stuffed with a mixture of mushrooms, vegetables, onions and nuts for Wigilia, which replaces the customary veal forcemeat; it is boiled in fish stock and red wine. It was adopted into French cuisine as Carp Polonaise – the highest honor for a culinary creation. An old Polish delicacy is Karp w szarym sosie (carp in grey sauce) utilizing plum butter, ground honey-gingerbread, dark beer, almonds and raisins. Karp w galarecie (carp in aspic) is a light chilled jelled-dish garnished with carrot rings, hard boiled eggs, and lemon slices.

Many traditional recipes overlap and have influenced Jewish cooking, but old culinary cooking made use of Jewish fish dishes. Karp po żydowsku and Szczupak (carp and pike Jewish style) are popular favorites.

Herring was one fish from the sea that did find favor. It is fried, salted, or pickled and served in a variety of ways. Śledzie po Kaszubski (herring Kaszuby style) is made within a tomato concentrate with oil, mushrooms, onions, and raisins. There is also Śledzie w śmietanie (in cream sauce), a pickled herring in wine sauce with crčme fraiche and onion, among many other variations.

Ryba w sosie greckim (Fish in Greek sauce) has become a popular modern favorite.

In the American Midwest the recipe for stuffed pike managed to make its way across the ocean, and.owes its origins to Poland.

Pierogi and Uszka.

Pierogi is a word that makes the mouth water. This delectable pocket-filled dumpling is filled with with various meatless fillings – cheese, potato and cheese, and kapusta (a unique recipe, which the words “cabbage” or “sauerkraut” do not justly describe).

It can be unjustly compared to ravioli, won ton, and kreplach, yet pierogi is a taste in a class by itself. Typical Polish pierogi are cooked in boiling salted water and are drizzled with melted butter.

Uszka, which means “little ears” is a smaller filled noodle, similar to the tortellini (“little hats“) of Italy. Filled with wild mushrooms they delicately float in the beet barszcz broth. Experienced in northeastern Poland, Kolduny are stuffed noodles, which came to Poland from Lithuania.

Desserts.

When it comes to pastries, in diversity, quality and taste Poland is second to none among European countries. The traditional Makowiec (poppy-seed roll) is the must-have on the Wigilia dessert menu. Besides the popular poppy-seed filling, this rolled cake can also be made with a “nutmeat” filling or with walnut, almond, or prune (lekvar) filling.

Babka is the national bread-cake and a must at every occasion. Mazurki include over fifty variations of elaborate cakes that are closely related to the famous Viennese torte.

Toruń Gingerbread Cake and Honey Spice Cake are baked in beautifully carved molds. The popular gingerbread katarzynki bisquits were known as early as 1640. Piernik Staropolski is yet another honey gingerbread cake with a chocolate icing exterior.

Kołacz – the braided wheel sculpture bread – popular at weddings, is also a familiar dessert in certain areas of Poland. The kołaczki foldover cookies are totally unrelated, and can be square, diamond shaped or round. The dough can be made with cream cheese, sour cream, or yeast. Fillings run the gamut of nuts, apricot, raspberry, prune and cheese.

Łamańce z makiem incorporates poppy seeds, milk, butter, honey, egg yolks, sugar, rum, vanilla pod, chopped almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts, raisins, chopped figs and candied orange peel.

Rogaliki (almond crescent cookies) mean “little horns” because of their shape. There are many versions – some recipes require rolling the dough and cutting it into triangles, adding a dollop of filling and rolling. They melt in your mouth.

After-Dinner Drink.

The twelve main dishes are now often replaced by a twelve-fruit Kompot. Traditionally alcohol is not served at the Wigilia table. After the meal when the guests retire to a different room, Wisniak or Wisniowka is served for the women, while the men often prefer the stronger Żubrówka or Jarzębina, made from berries of the mountain ash. Homemade Krupnik (honey-spice cordial) has been a favorite in my family.

Whatever the number of dishes, it is important to at least try each one once. Ile się nie spróbuje, tyle przyjemności w ciągu roku może człowieku ominąć (however many dishes are not tasted, a person will lose that much happiness in the coming year).

In addition to the glorious foods, Wigilia in the Polish household is a an evolution of family. The memories continue and live on in a different form each year. The ritual, the customs and the magnificent tastes of Wigilia is a tradition that will stay within forever.

Consult www.PAJtoday.blogspot.com for recipes or request recipes at: PAJtoday@yahoo.com.

Wesłoych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia. Zapraszamy do wigilijnego stołu!

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