‘Wigilia’ showcases borscht, assorted fishes and vodka
This post featuring a Christmas Eve feast I enjoyed in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico is long overdue! Six months later, the beets for the coming year’s borscht are already in the ground, and it will soon be time to head to the woods and hunt precious porcini mushrooms, looking for all the world like reddish hamburger buns poking up through the pine needles on the forest floor.
Both ingredients played a starring role in the Wigilia borscht I was privileged to eat, borscht being one of two “must-serve” dishes in this meatless meal served the night before Christmas. I can almost still taste it, expertly prepared by Jacik ‘Jack’ Gawron, the Polish the son-in-law of my dear Arizona friend Zola. Jack and Zola’s daughter, Lyn, kindly invited me to accompany Zola last Christmas and stay with them in San Miguel de Allende for the holidays.
The prep work started even before we arrived, since traditional borscht includes a fermented beet and beet-juice component, and Jack is nothing if not a traditionalist. When we arrived, a clear jar of the purplish liquid was sitting on the counter alongside a welcoming crockpot of steaming bean soup that Lyn served us with cornbread.
Jack has been making this Polish feast as long as he can remember. When he and Lyn lived in New Mexico, the couple foraged their own Porcinis, which can range in size from an inch to a foot in diameter. Their earthy, almost meaty flavor adds welcome depth to the soup, surrounded by thin wonton-wrapper pasta in Jack’s version, pressed into the shape of small empañadas. (It was one of a few nods to our being in Mexico. In Poland, somebody’s grandmother would have rolled out fresh pasta and hand-formed the “uszka,” or “little ears” dumplings.)
Porcinis are a must for proper uszka. They belong to an elite, much-prized class of mushrooms, mycorrhizal fungi, which also includes morels, chanterelles, truffles and matsutake. If you buy mushrooms, you’ll note these are the most expensive and deeply flavored ones. Mycorrhizal mushrooms have a complex host relationship involving more than one plant, which means they are not easily cultivated and must be hunted.
Jack was able to find a forager in San Miguel to sell him our Wigilia mushrooms, and he bulked up the ones he could get with some store-bought button mushrooms. Sautéed with shallots and garlic in butter, the filling also included fresh herbs and breadcrumbs. Given how rich was the mushroom flavor in our uszka, I can only imagine how assertive a taste 100 percent porcini would produce!
Borscht is an important food culturally in both Russia and Poland. But Ukraine can claim to have invented it, according to food historians. Below I will post an Ukrainian recipe that arrived in my inbox this week, reminding me how remiss I have been not to write about the Wigilia! Borscht is a blend of broth, beets and an acidic tang that may come from lemon juice.
Though we think of beets when we hear the word borscht, it actually references the cow parsnip plant, which was the original foundation to this sour soup. Once beets were cultivated and widely available, they took over the starring role in most borscht recipes.
Beyond the borscht – and it’s hard not to linger over it! – the Wigilia meal traditionally includes several fish preparations. Our had two kinds of herring – wine-marinated and dressed with a horseradish sour cream – and another smoked fish that I cannot recall…I’ve phoned a friend but we’re gong to have to circle back around once I know!
The entree was baked fish wrapped in Hoja Santa, a Mexican herb that Saveur describes as “a little like root beer, a little like eucalyptus, good savory and sweet.” It was served with rosemary-scented roasted potatoes and horseradish sour cream. SO good.
Now for the most important part – no, not dessert, silly. We forgot all about the dessert, and also forgot to serve one of the cucumber salads in the fridge! And perhaps the most important part played a role! It’s the drinking. Polish folks, and Jack in particular, are fans of vodka. We enjoyed chilled Bison Grass vodka, and also a lovely Spanish Albariño white and “Devil’s Blood” red. It was a beautiful meal served in a lovely home! A long-overdue thank you!