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The American melting pot is brimming with the holiday foods of diverse cultures

THE BALTIMORE SUN

So many occasions; so much to eat. That's the delicious problem confronting Americans during December. Whatever the reason for the celebration, food plays a major role.

Polish Catholics mark Christmas Eve with a festive, but meatless, meal.

Symbolic foods play a major role on the Karamu table during Kwanzaa, a celebration of African-American community and culture.

And although New Year's Eve is better known for its partying and libations, certain "lucky" foods are as important to that holiday as turkey is to Thanksgiving. In Italy, lentils are the food that brings luck for the coming year.

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Once upon a time, the Polish Christmas Eve dinner was 12 meals eaten over the course of this very important family day.

Mark Jedlinski, a graphic designer originally from Poland, recalls large, family-style meals featuring a wide variety of foods. There's a lot of fish, he says, sometimes boiled and served encased in gelatin, as well as baked or broiled. Herring, prepared in a variety of ways, is also traditional.

Of course, there are pierogi, Polish dumplings, often stuffed with mushrooms, cabbage or sauerkraut. Mushrooms are likely to show up in other guises as well, particularly creamed and served over toast points, or in soup. Salads and vegetable dishes are almost always made with potatoes and cabbage.

The feast is readied while children and grandmothers decorate the tree, Mr. Jedlinski says.

Polish creamed mushrooms

Makes 6 servings

6 tablespoons butter (divided use)

juice of 1 lemon, strained

2 pounds fresh mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

4 or 5 green onions, chopped, white part only

1 teaspoon minced parsley

2 tablespoons flour

1 cup half-and-half

1 egg yolk, beaten

salt and white pepper to taste

4 to 6 slices buttered rye toast, cut into points, if desired

Melt 4 tablespoons butter in skillet over medium heat. Add lemon juice. Cook mushrooms and onions in lemon butter until mushrooms shrink and nearly all the liquid is absorbed. Sprinkle with parsley.

VJ In another small skillet, melt 2 tablespoons butter and stir in flour.

Cook over low heat until bubbly, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir flour mixture into mushrooms. Slowly add half-and-half, stirring gently, and bring just to a boil.

Remove from heat. Whisk in egg yolk and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve over toast.

Per serving: calories: 309; fat: 22 grams; cholesterol: 95 milligrams; sodium: 471 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 62 percent.

Red cabbage and apple salad

Makes 6 servings

2 1/2 cups shredded red cabbage

salt

1 large or 2 small red or golden delicious apples, coarsely grated

2 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons sugar or honey

Place cabbage in a large bowl. Sprinkle lightly with salt and let stand 10 minutes. Transfer to a colander and squeeze out as much liquid as possible.

Return to clean bowl and combine with grated apple. Combine lemon juice and sugar or honey and pour over cabbage. Toss well; chill before serving.

Per serving: calories: 40; trace fat; no cholesterol; sodium: 183 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 3 percent.

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Kwanzaa is a cultural, not religious, holiday that emerged in the '60s. It celebrates black family, community and culture in Africa and America every Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.

One of the high points of Kwanzaa is the Karamu, or feast. Because the evening for Karamu falls on Dec. 31, the meal celebrates the coming year as well.

Black, red and green are the Kwanzaa colors. Black represents the African-American people, red represents their struggle and green represents the future.

The foods for Karamu incorporate the traditional colors, particularly the red and green, says Merikhent Men-Ka-Ra, a professor at Paul Quinn College in Waco, Texas.

Corn, representing children, their hopes and future, is also an important ingredient on the Kwanzaa table, Mr. Men-Ka-Ra says.

Dishes for Karamu can be any celebratory or favorite foods, but some of those favored are corn bread, red soda pop and green beans or peas for their symbolic colors, yams, chicken, chitlins, ham, apple pie, lots of rice and other vegetables.

"I have intentionally stressed eating healthy. . . . Our kids like a little cheese and no meat," says Mr. Men-Ka-Ra, who teaches classes in the meaning of Kwanzaa and its celebration.

The Karamu feast, celebrated in homes and also in community centers, frequently is a potluck affair.

Kwanzaa jollof rice

Makes 6 servings

2 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 teaspoons vegetable oil (divided use)

1 frying chicken, cut into serving pieces

3 medium onions, chopped

2 small green bell peppers, seeded and chopped

1/2 pound raw medium shrimp, shelled and deveined

6 cups water

3/4 cup chopped carrots

3/4 cup cut green beans

3/4 cup green peas

3 medium tomatoes, chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 sprig thyme, crushed, or 1 teaspoon dried

1 1/2 cups uncooked long-grain rice

1/4 cup tomato paste

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in stockpot or Dutch oven. Brown chicken pieces on all sides, then add onions and green peppers. Cook over medium heat 5 to 10 minutes or until vegetables are soft and begin to brown.

Meanwhile, in separate skillet, cook shrimp over medium heat in 1 1/2 teaspoons oil, just until no longer transparent (2 to 3 minutes). Remove from pan and reserve.

Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add carrots, green beans and peas. Cook about 5 minutes. Drain vegetables, reserving 3 cups of the cooking liquid. Add vegetables and reserved liquid to chicken along with shrimp, tomatoes, salt, black pepper, cayenne and thyme. Reduce heat to low and simmer 5 minutes.

Combine rice and tomato paste in bowl, stirring until rice is evenly coated. Stir rice into stockpot. Cover and simmer until rice is tender, about 20 minutes. Add additional water if too much liquid cooks away before rice is tender or if rice begins to stick.

Per serving: calories: 491; fat: 17 grams; cholesterol: 89 milligrams; sodium: 499 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 31 percent.

Karamu feast tabbouleh

Makes 6 servings

2 cups boiling water

1 cup bulgur wheat

1 cup finely chopped fresh parsley

1/2 cup mint, finely chopped

1/2 pound tofu, finely chopped

2 tomatoes, finely chopped

1/2 cup black olives, chopped

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup chopped green onions, including green part

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

leaf lettuce for garnish

Pour boiling water over bulgur and soak for 1 hour. Pour off water and drain bulgur well. Combine drained bulgur with remaining ingredients, tossing to mix well and evenly distribute ingredients. Serve on leaf lettuce.

Per serving: calories: 204; fat: 8 grams; no cholesterol; sodium: 304 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 34 percent.

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Lentils are to Italians as black-eyed peas are to Americans: They bring good luck in the new year, especially with money.

"The more you eat, the more [money] you make in the new year," says Rosaria Penzi Popplewell. Italian by birth, Ms. Popplewell left Italy about 15 years ago.

The traditional Italian New Year's Eve meal is a multicourse dinner, she says. It includes a sausage called cotechino, mashed potatoes and lentils. It follows the antipasto and pasta courses. Filled pastas, usually ravioli, tortellini or lasagna, are on the typical New Year's Eve menu.

Following the lucky lentils is the main course, usually roast pork or beef, then a vegetable such as broccoli. Then come nuts and dried fruits before the dessert, traditionally panettone, the Italian fruitcake. Ms. Popplewell says she always serves an orange custard sauce with it because "otherwise Americans don't like it so much."

Clearly, this New Year's Eve cenone (big meal) is not for revelers with birdlike appetites.

The evening begins late: Antipasto starts about 9 p.m., with the lentils targeted for about 11. Ideally, dessert and champagne coincide with ringing in the new year at midnight.

Buon anno (happy New Year) and auguri (may your wishes come true) are traditional toasts as guests clink glasses and embrace the Italian way with a hug and a kiss on each cheek," says Ms. Popplewell.

Italian New Year's lentils

Makes 6 servings

2 cups lentils

cold water

1 small onion, grated or finely chopped

1 carrot, grated or finely chopped

1 stalk celery, grated or finely chopped

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon tomato paste

1 1/2 tablespoons flour

about 2 cups hot chicken or beef stock, more if needed

salt to taste

Rinse lentils and place in large bowl. Cover with cold water and soak overnight. Discard any floating lentils. Drain and reserve.

Place onion, carrot and celery in saucepan along with olive oil. Cook over medium heat until vegetables are soft. Add lentils, mixing well. Add tomato paste and flour, mixing well.

Add enough stock just to cover lentils and bring liquid to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 40 minutes or until lentils are tender. Add more stock if too much liquid cooks away. When lentils are done, add salt to taste.

Per serving: calories: 302; fat: 8 grams; trace cholesterol; sodium: 452 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 23 percent.

Orange sauce for panettone

Makes 12 servings

5 egg yolks

3/4 cup sugar

dash of salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

grated peel of 1 orange

2 cups hot milk

1 to 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur

1 panettone (Italian coffee cake; may be purchased at specialty store or Italian bakery)

Stir together in a saucepan the egg yolks and sugar. Add salt, vanilla and orange peel.

Gradually whisk in the hot milk and begin heating mixture over medium heat until almost boiling. Remove from heat and strain PTC into a bowl. Add liqueur and allow to cool, stirring frequently. Chill until ready to serve.

Spoon over panettone just before serving. Garnish with long thin strips of orange peel and half circles of thinly sliced fresh orange.

Per serving (sauce): calories: 104; fat: 4 grams; cholesterol: 94 milligrams; sodium: 35 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 31 percent.

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