Edible Columbus — Winter 2012
Change Language:
Edible Traditions
By Marta Madigan • Photography by Catherine Murray

The Great Supper

Memories of Christmas Eve culinary traditions at home in Poland

In my country of Poland the most important meal of the year is meatless. That's right: In the land of kiełbasa, tripe soup and wild game roast, traditional Christmas Eve recipes feature vegetables, fruits and fish. Each year, Polish tables groan under the weight of 12 dishes created uniquely for Wigilia, or the supper of December 24. There is something from the field: beets; something from the forest: mushrooms; something from the orchard: prunes; and something from the pond: carp. The latter, ever since I can recall, has foreshadowed the upcoming holidays at my home in Warsaw.

There Is a Carp in the Tub

To guarantee the absolute freshness of the carp, my mother bought it from the store alive in a bucket, filled the bathtub with water and let our dinner swim for a day or two. Then my father, with a slightly pale look on his face, took care of business. "When you were little, we told you that Mr. Carp went to sleep," recalls my mother.

At this point, Christmas Eve's preparation was in full swing: Soup was cooked, salads mixed, cakes baked. My mother put the finishing touches to her carp in aspic, opened jars of pickled herring, fried walleye with vegetables a la grecque and other fishy delicacies. My job consisted of spooning the sauerkraut and mushroom filling inside the circles of dough and finally folding and sealing the edges of countless pierogi.

By 4pm everything smelled heavenly. My father and I looked out the window awaiting our guests and the first star on an already-dark northern sky.

Everyone Is Welcome

Although we never had an unexpected guest for Wigilia, the table was always set with an extra place in case a lonely traveler appeared at the door. Our family usually hosted my grandmother Anna – a widow since World War II – and my aunt Kazia – an unmarried, very attractive woman.

Soon upon our guests' arrival, my father officially set in motion our evening by presenting each person opłatek, a rectangular, unleavened bread embossed with nativity scenes. As each of us broke off a piece, we offered each other the bread and exchanged best wishes for the upcoming year.

Then, the dinner was served. My mother emerged from the kitchen carrying a silver tray with steaming cups of red barszcz (borscht). This drinkable beet soup (see recipe on page 23) was paired sometimes with tortellini, other times with buttery mushroom puffs. It instantly made us forget the frigid winter and life's struggles.

Next came cold appetizers. As my fish allergy allowed me to only admire egg-stuffed pike or herring rollmops (known as pickled herring fillets), my mother prepared an array of salads. Meticulously micro-cubed cooked root vegetables in mayonnaise were a must. Braised red cabbage with raisins, shredded carrot and apple and other colorful vegetable-fruit combinations were passed around the table.

My father, who loved to entertain, told us jokes and encouraged us to taste the dishes. When we satisfied our initial hunger, he gave my mother a signal to serve the main course. "Bring it hot, My Lady," he used to say.

Tradition, Tradition!

Being traditionalists, my parents celebrated the Vigil of the Nativity with 12 courses, no meat. "Picture Thanksgiving with a pescatarian menu – a 10-pound carp instead of turkey," summarizes my American husband, Jay.

The number of dishes represented the 12 apostles and each ingredient had a symbolic meaning. Fish, for instance, referred to Christianity, baptism and rebirth; poppyseed and nuts symbolized fertility; mushroom – a connection between the world of the living and the dead; honey – love and happiness.

To assure the prosperity in our family, my mother placed strands of hay under an impeccably ironed linen tablecloth. My father, in turn, distributed oval scales from the carp. Each family member took one scale and put it inside their wallet. Apparently, it secured our financial future. Above all, of course, we were to try a little bit of every dish so that we wouldn't lack a thing in the New Year.

Silent Night Gone Loud

After sharing warm platters of fried fish, boiled pierogi, sauerkraut and yellow split-pea stew, and łazanki (flat noodle squares) baked with cabbage and mushroom, our stomachs needed a little break. Between the main course and the dessert, the very much anticipated time for opening Christmas presents had finally arrived.

A precious few packages waited under a twiggy and fragrant spruce tree. It was dressed up in gilded nuts, nutcracker figurines, birds, angels and home-crafted paper chains. The differently shaped and sized boxes were tied with satin ribbon and handed out one-by-one by my elegantly dressed father. A wooden boxed oil paint set, a pair of suede gloves, a book of Wisława Szymborska's poems. There was something for everyone.

One year my mother gave my father a piano accordion. From then on, the Christmas carols gained a little polka twist and a pretty high volume. The Weltmeister, like an exhaling chest, filled the room with powerful notes of otherwise quiet Lulajże Jezuniu (Sleep Little Jesus) – an old Polish lullaby quoted by Chopin in one of his scherzi.

It Is a Mystery

Singing along with an accordion carried us through the evening toward its dolce finale. As if by magic, tangerines, walnuts, chocolate-covered gingerbread hearts and at least two cakes appeared on the table.

We could always count on a delicious pop-pyseed roll. Garnished with candied orange peel and nuts, this traditional Christmas yeast cake was baked by my friend's mother who, year after year, gave it to us in exchange for a raspberry confiture – one of my mother's specialties.

My parents usually whipped up an airy cheesecake, or a much more dense loaf of fruitcake. Piernik, a honey cake with layers of tangy jam, was the holidays' big hit. My aunt bought it at the bakery just in case we ran short of desserts. When we couldn't possible swallow another bite, my mother poured us her Christmas kompot. How exactly did the homemade juice of dried plums and cooked apples make us feel light again? I don't know, but it did.

As the years pass, I cannot help reflecting on the meaning of an empty plate at the table on Christmas Eve. Perhaps it is there for someone who is no longer with us? Someone we wish to invite but we can't? Someone like my beloved father, who passed away four Christmases ago? Continuing our beautiful tradition of Wigilia supper at my new home, in America, is certainly something he would want me to do. And I shall. Fishless. Wesołych Świąt! Merry Christmas!

Clear Beet Soup
Recipe courtesy of Jadwiga Wilczak, adapted by Marta Madigan

Serves 4–6
1 bunch red beets (3 large or 4 medium)
1 parsnip
1 carrot
1/4 celery root (or 2 celery ribs)
2 garlic cloves
1 medium onion
5 cups water
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
6 black peppercorns
2 allspice berries
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon marjoram (optional)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Juice of 1/2–1 lemon
Freshly ground pepper to taste

3 teaspoons fresh parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon canola, flaxseed or other oil

Using gloves, peel and cut beetroots into thin slices. Discard the tops.

Peel parsnip, carrot, celery root, onion and garlic and cut in half or quarters depending on their thickness. Place vegetables in a pot, add water, cover and bring to a boil. Add sugar, salt, pepper, allspice berries, bay leaves, marjoram, vinegar and simmer for about 1 hour.

Cool down slightly.

Strain all the vegetables, add fresh lemon juice and adjust the seasonings. It should be pleasantly tart and slightly sweet. Heat up the soup, avoiding boiling it. It tastes best the next day. Garnish with fresh parsley and a few drops of canola oil.

*Polish for "Bon appétit!" (pronounced smahtch-NEH-gaw).

Marta Madigan is a Polish freelance travel and food writer who, as an editor and contributor, helped begin the Polish edition of National Geographic magazine. In her many NG stories she covered a variety of food related topics such as Spanish tapas, French cuisine, Polish Christmas traditions and American Thanksgiving. After she moved from Warsaw to the United States, she wrote a chapter on Southern cooking for a collective book on international cuisines published in 2008 in Poland. In 2012, another NG book on journeys of a lifetime included her chapter about Sonoma and Napa Valley wines. She has contributed to Edible Columbus since the winter issue of 2010.

Where Kiełbasa is Made

In the northeast corner of the North Market you may catch a glimpse of fresh sausage production. White kiełbasa is made on the spot – at Hubert's Polish Kitchen – during winter months only. Henryk Wilamowski, Hubert's father, knows his craft. Large chunks of fresh pork, a fair amount of garlic and marjoram go inside natural casing. The final product is used as a base of white barszcz (a sour rye soup) and other hearty items on the menu. Like bigos – a traditional Polish stew with a variety of meats and sauerkraut.

Piotrek, Hubert's brother, specializes in lighter veggie dishes. Next to red and white cabbage slaws, his most popular creation is a nose-tickling red beetroot and horseradish salad. It is served next to a mountain of mashed potatoes. Rumor has it that these are the best taters in town.

"We make everything from scratch here," Hubert says. This Polish chef takes pride in his cabbage rolls, meatballs and pierogi. The recipes come from his family in Poland, where they ran a pig farm. "I am a farmer and we serve peasant food, the food on which I was raised," Hubert avows.

For more information on Hubert's Polish Kitchen, visit: northmarket.com/meet-the-market/merchants/huberts-polish-kitchen

– MM