Countdown to Wigilia

I am generally unafraid to attempt any recipe, nor do I shy away from tweaking the technique or ingredients to my taste.

Unless, of course, the recipe in question is for a dish that is associated with an important holiday and has been made by the same person for 40-some-odd years. So it is with the kapusta, or Polish cabbage soup, that my Ciocia (aunt) Alice has been making for the Wigilia (Christmas Eve) celebration every year for as long as I can remember. This year, she’s handing the task over to me, and it’s a little unnerving. Everyone knows exactly what it’s supposed to taste like, but damned if I can get her to tell me exactly how she makes it.

Wigilia is the most important time of the Christmas holiday for Poles. It’s observance is deeply traditional, and our family has celebrated it pretty much the same way since the beginning of time. The family gathers in the evening for wine and hors d’oeuvres–the most non-traditional part of the celebration, this currently consists of shrimp cocktail and Pinar’s Turkish muhammara spread. Once everyone has finally arrived, the family shares the opłatek, an embossed wafer similar in taste and texture to the communion host. Each family member offers a piece of their wafer to another with a wish for health, happiness, or good fortune in the new year. Then we sit down to eat.

I shared the menu in an earlier post, Holiday Traditions, which includes a recipe for the treasured Polish mushroom soup, our first course. Borowik mushrooms from Poland are de rigeour for this recipe, and are available online or from any Polish market. They are quite dear ($30 for a small string!), but–you guessed it–nothing else tastes the same. Second course is cabbage soup, or kapusta, and last–everyone’s favorite–pierogi.

While the traditional Wigilia menu is meant to be meatless–most Poles are devout Catholics and tradition requires that they refrain from eating meat on religious holidays–it seems to me that my aunt  has always included a little meat in the kapusta. A recipe she gave me some years ago includes fresh cabbage and sauerkraut, yellow split peas for body, as well as both country-style pork ribs and kiełbasa. When asked about making it vegetarian (several family members are pescetarians), she said, “Oh, of course you can do it without meat, you just use some salt pork to give it flavor.”

A Google search for “Polish cabbage soup vegetarian” yielded 272,000 hits. Almost all included recipes that were heavy on the pork.

Other sources from my own and my mother’s bookshelves: Cooking with a Polish Touch (1991) from the Polish Home Association Ladies Auxiliary in Seattle; Polish Cookery: The Universal Cookbook (1958) by Maria Ochorowicz-Monatowa; and Favorite Recipes (undated, but decidedly 1970s in character) from the Felician Sisters, Our Lady of Angels Convent, Enfield, CT, as well as a hand-written recipe from my mother’s friend–all included pork ribs or pork butt at a minimum, and most added one or all of the following: kiełbasa, bacon, or beef bones.

On the wonderful website for the Polish-American Journal (it even has an entire section on polka music), I found a recipe for sauerkraut with mushrooms that wasn’t exactly soup, and included anchovies (optional), but had possibilities. With weeks of research under  my belt and the Christmas Eve deadline fast approaching, I’ve decided to quit looking for a recipe and just invent a vegetarian version using some of those very expensive mushrooms. Of course, I’ll make the meat version, too, according to my aunt’s recipe. Both will be included in the next post.

Next stop: Wintertime Farmer’s Market in Pawtucket, RI for fresh sauerkraut.

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