“May we invite Ela for a traditional Polish dinner?” asked my husband after he had returned from his school one summer afternoon. Ela, just like Jay, studied at the Polonicum Centre of Polish Language and Culture for Foreigners at the University of Warsaw. She was from Israel and had a relative who lived in the western part of Poland—her main reason for immersing herself in the brain flexing activities of the more-exceptions-than-the-rules Polish grammar course.
“Of course,” I cheerfully replied while quickly going through a list of what's traditional and not porky. After eliminating the obvious: smalec (rendered pig fat), kiełbasa and schabowy (pork breaded cutlet), I settled on steak tartare followed by chłodnik, or chilled yogurt-beet soup garnished with hard-boiled egg. For our main course we could have staffed rolls of beef in wild mushroom sauce on top of kasha, or earthy buckwheat groats. It would go so well with my father's crisp dill pickles and my mother's tangy beet relish... “Oh, and she doesn't eat meat at all,” added Jay.
No problem. We could still serve chłodnik but start with grilled oscypek, or sheep cheese instead of raw beef mince. As the main course without meat perhaps a savory buckwheat babka with buttery mushed potatoes, eggs and farmer's cheese would do. A creamy mushroom sauce and... “She is actually vegan,” murmured Jay.
Well. I continued stripping our dinner menu down again. Cold yogurt-beet soup had to go. Kasha with pickles and colorful veggie salads would fill the main course plate. And we end with blueberry filled pierogi, their dough kneaded without eggs. Wait a second. A clear barszcz, or Polish borscht could stay. Polish cuisine offers so many variations of beet soup that we actually have a meat- and dairy-free barszcz, however it is traditionally served during a Christmas Eve dinner. Or whenever we have a vegan guest from Israel or from anywhere else.
Are you looking for a vegan soup? Here is my family's version of barszcz from my “Soupland” series. It tastes like the holidays especially when served with sauerkraut-mushroom pierogi on a cold December day. This recipe was published as a sidebar to my story on Polish Christmas traditions in the winter issue of Edible Columbus 2012.
CLEAR BEET SOUP (BARSZCZ CZERWONY CZYSTY)
Recipe courtesy of Jadwiga Wilczak, adapted by Marta Madigan
1 bunch red beets (3 large or 4 medium)
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. Smacznego! Bon appétit!