Busy, busy at the fish station in the supermarket this weekend as folks get ready for the Christmas feast. It will remain so until Christmas eve. The big meal for celebrating the birth of Christ is on December 24. It’s a meat-free session and fish gets lots of limelight. Herrings show up in a few dressings, such as cream, curry and linseed oil. At my mother-in-law’s, there’s always a ryba po grecku (Greek-style fish). It’s a very Polish interpretation of Greek style. One year, I was assigned to prepare this carroty fish salad.
Carp, traditionally, is the fish of the festivity but it gets lots of bad press. Some folks opt for trout or salmon. Last week, I saw something called lin (tench). It turns out to be a cousin of the carp. Bought it home, cleaned it and fried it. It tasted good enough but the thickish skin with an oily under layer spooked me out a bit.
Below is an article I wrote about what else to eat.
The Feast Before Christmas (Warsaw Insider, December 2011)
Putting 12 dishes on the table for the traditional Wigilia dinner isn’t as daunting as it seems. Here’s a quick run through on how to pull it off.
The festive merrymaking happens a day earlier in Poland. It’s on Christmas Eve, called Wigilia in Polish, when family members exchange well wishes by sharing a consecrated wafer (opłatek). Then the pressies are swapped before the family faces down 12 meat-free dishes. In strict households, it’s also an alcohol-free night.
While going dry should rightfully get you into a fit, dishing out 12 shouldn’t, for there’s room for manoeuvre. If you count separately each of the herring dishes of a different dressing, you’ll check off 3 or 4 items. Throw in the nuts, dried fruits, chocolate and dessert and you’ll max out in no time. If you overshoot the figure, you can lump the salads or desserts as one unit to reduce the sum. In any case, I’ve never seen anyone totting up the spread.
The centrepiece is the fish, usually carp. The rest of the menu consists of a soup, veggie-based items and desserts. The ingredients required reflect a true celebration of eating local. There’s no rule that you must handcraft everything from scratch. By all means, source the uszka (little pierogi’s), “herrings in 3-ways” and poppyseed rolls from reliable deli’s and restaurants.
Soup and Veggie Sides Red barszcz (beet root soup) with uszka or mushroom soup with pasta are two of the popular ones. With veggies, you have free hand. Boiled cabbage with mushroom, potato salad and gołabki (cabbage rolls) are some usual suspects.
Fish Carp is always fodder for heated discussion. The Hate-It camp which seems to be sizeable earnestly badmouth this freshwater creature as muddy and gross. Whatever your allegiance is, do wallow in seasonal cheer by visiting markets, like Hala Mirowska, to see fishmongers and their tubs of live flippers. A story goes round that city folks buy the fish days earlier and keep it alive in the bath tub till it’s time to strike the blow. I’ve never seen this in action and I suspect it’s a gag locals made up for gullible foreigners. Trout, pike or eel can stand in to appease the carp rebels. The fish can be served warm. For the cold version, fish flesh is encased in jelly. “Gross,” I hear you say. Many Poles say the same, too. But tradition and covert supporters keep it a recurring theme on Wigilia table. Pickled herring is rinsed and soaked in milk to reduce its saltiness before being doled out as side dishes in a variety of sauces, such as cream, mustard, onion and oil or “Hungarian”.
Dessert If you’re going to homemade the makowiec (poppyseed roll), the hallmark of success is keeping the dough as thin as possible and packing in loads of poppyseed and dried fruit mix. In some families, preparing the poppyseed is very much part of the festive cooking routine. The seeds are simmered in milk, drained and milled (by hand) several times. Kutia, of Orthodox Christian origin, is pasta coated with poppyseed and honey. My fave is poppyseed soaked in brandy and mixed with chopped almonds and walnuts, and scooped up with thin cookies. It’s good to get a head start, as early as four weeks, with the piernik (gingerbread) to allow time for the spices to mingle in the dough. Every family has their own recipe and some are fairly complicated affairs with layers and fillings.
Related post: The Original Domestic Goddess.