My second Easter Sunday in London

Easter is a big deal in Polish Catholic homes – more important than Christmas, even. As a kid, my grandmother took the Easter season very seriously. On Palm Sunday, we decorated our palms with extravagant tackiness (mine always turned out looking like something from a mini-challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race), and the Easter baskets were also key to the celebration. Unlike the American Easter baskets – of which I was very covetous – the Polish Catholic Easter baskets were all about feeding the poor and honouring Jesus Christ who has risen from the dead. We didn’t have cute bunny rabbits, cartoon characters, or toys, wrapped in colourful cellophane. I remember my baskets would have jars of horseradish, smoked sausage, butter carved into the shape of a lamb, and a sweet Easter bun (which wasn’t really all that sweet) At the end of mass, we were expected to leave something behind on the alter, which would later be – I hope – donated to the poor.

Once I stopped being Catholic, the holiday was never that big a deal for me, and it was just an excuse for me to go out with my friends to brunch. Easter usually fell sometime in latet April, early May, so the weather started to turn, and it felt very city to get dressed in light linen and go to a trendy restaurant to eat eggs and drink mimosas (this was before I became a teetotaller)

A year and a half ago, I moved to London. Easter is a huge deal here, and we get lots of time off around the holiday. My mother is in town, visiting, and so I decided instead of going out for Easter brunch we’d have dinner at home. I also invited my dear friend Sheila (who’s from Australia), and Cara, a fellow Yank-turned-Londoner (she even grew up in Chicago, so we traded Chicago trivia like neighbourhoods and city haunts)

This year was interesting because I wanted to combine the traditions of my partner, who’s American, my Polish mother’s traditions, but I also wanted to be sensitive to Cara, who’s a vegan. This brunch would be an interesting challenge.

Before I go on, I would like to say that when I write cooking vegan food is a “challenge” I don’t mean it in a “ugh, what a burden – vegan food is so weird, what am I gonna do?” way. It’s not…Vegan food is great and accessible, and vegans should be given more options for their dinner than lettuce leaves and chickpeas.

That being said, I never cooked vegan food before, so I thought it would be fun to see what I can do. I decided that I wouldn’t go the fake meat route and make some kind of fake ham (Sham?) or tofu lamb chops. Instead, I looked to beans and veg for my menu. I looked at different bean stews, and settled on a Mexican-style bean stew. I didn’t go by a recipe, and instead worked with the kinds of vegetables I thought would work well with Mexican style stew.

That means I bought cans of black beans, red kidney beans, chickpeas, pinto beans, corn. I also got tinned tomatoes. I love cooking with beans – I do meatless Mondays and beans are a go-to for me when cooking vegetarian dishes. I chopped an onion and sautéed it in a large pan with some corn oil (olive oil is too distinct and peppery), and once the onion got translucent , I sprinkled in some taco seasoning (I know, I know – I live in London and so my access to the right herbs is severely limited, so I have to sometimes rely on El Paso). I chopped some red pepper and chili pepper and threw that it – I also rubbed my nose and started to scream and rinse my nose out. Be very careful when chopping chili peppers – wear gloves if you can. After throwing in the peppers and letting them sweat for a bit, I poured some vegetable broth and threw in the tinned veg with their waters (except for the chickpea water – I reserved that for vegan latkes) I cooked over high heat until it was reduced, thick and soupy – like a Mexican-spiced ratatouille. I transferred most of the stew into a Pyrex baking dish, and reduced the remaining stew further until it took on a dark, chocolate colour and poured that on stew and baked in a moderately hot oven for about an hour.

I also made vegan latkes – Mayim Bialik from The Big Bang Theory (is it weird that I don’t reference Blossom anymore?) has a YouTube video in which she makes vegan latkes from a mix. I’m not sure what the benefit is of making it from a box, because I used fresh ingredients, and all was okay. I grated onion and potato and used the water from a tin of chickpeas. I added matzoh meal and created a batter. I seasoned with salt, pepper, and some dried dill (use a light hand when using dried herbs) I fried in batches in hot oil and drained on paper towels. I noticed that not using real egg made the latkes cook longer and the texture was slightly different – softer, maybe? But they still came out crispy and good. I served the latkes with cranberry sauce.

As a side, I also made curry chickpeas, since I opened a tin. This recipe is too easy – I almost don’t need to write it. Fry the chickpea over a high heat, stirring constantly, and add some chopped broccoli and stir fry. Add some curry powder and let it bloom. I then added some frozen peas, frozen garlic, and frozen ginger (I like frozen veg) and stirred cooking until the veg took on some browning (the pan got a bit dry at certain points, so I added a bit of water at a time to deglaze the pan)

The final veg dish was also very simple – pan fry some asparagus and pouring balsamic vinegar and spinning, stir frying constantly, letting the vinegar reduce and get sticky and sweet.

The nod to my Polish culture came with the white borscht soup. It’s also known as żurek, a white sour soup made with sourdough starter. Last year I made this soup and made my own sourdough starter (the yeasty stuff that gives sourdough its name), but this year, I was like, “bump that noise,” and instead got some żurek packet soup and used that as a starter, instead. I sautéed some onion, parsnip, turnip, onion until the veg softened a bit. I then added chicken stock and threw in chopped sausage. I used some smoked Polish kielbasa (a variety made of chicken)

Interesting side story: normally, one would use a white sausage, similar to a brat, that’s sold fresh. I went to the local Polish deli in my neighbourhood the other day. I walked in to store to see a low-hum of contained chaos. There was a large crowd of people getting in their last-minute Easter shopping, and so lots of baskets crammed with food. I went to the meat counter and saw a crowd forming. An angry crowd. As I took my place in the queue, I overheard a lady ahead of me ordering some ham and the girl behind the counter announced to us that there was a power outage and so the digital scale wasn’t working, so we couldn’t buy anything that needed to be weighed. This caused a great amount of consternation among the crowd full of Polish aunties and grandmas who were aghast at this news. “How long is this going to last?” One woman asked. The girl shrugged and said she couldn’t answer. Another woman suggested that the girl eyeball how much she was selling, and the young girl shot back with, “Madame, how could I guess how much meat I’d be selling?” There were more shouts from these women and my partner and I got a bit worried that there’d be a riot dotted with looting, so we skidaddled out of there before it stuff got ugly and just went to a regular supermarket.

So because of that, we used the “wrong” kind of sausage for the soup – which was okay, because it turned out well, anyways…I threw in the
żurek mix and cooked for about an hour, adding a spoonful of horseradish, mustard, dried dill and cooked over a low heat, simmering.

To round out the meal, we served it with pierogi and my friend brought some vegan bread. For dessert, I made a quick smoothie by crushing frozen summer fruits (strawberries, red currants, blueberries) and mixing it with vegan yoghurt (made with soy and almond – yum) My Aussie friend also brought dessert – millionaire’s shortbread – and I served some liquor (I drank Pepsi)

We served the food buffet-style, and I was thrilled to be done with my cooking. I planned on serving gooseberry gelatine with peaches, but the gelatine never gelled – I even set it near a window to be cooled – but it stayed as gloppy, lime green slop.

At the end of the evening, I looked at the kitchen and was startled at how destroyed it looked – like a kitchen kabloom took place. I was startled at how secular all this was, though. Like Christmas, Easter is more cultural now – I mean Cadbury eggs? What’s that gotta do with Jesus?

Our party continued as we finished up our food – there weren’t a whole lot of leftovers – I gave some to my friends, and I have to figure out what to do with the leftovers we do have. I’m thinking of baking the leftovers with elbow pasta, not sure…We also have some bread, so maybe a panzanella?

Anyways, Happy Easter!

Back to my roots: Polish dining at Café Maja

I grew up in Brighton Park in Chicago. Brighton Park has a large Polish population and was, at one point, the largest settlement of Poles in Chicago. White flight has made Poles move out of the city in large numbers toward the suburbs, but when I was a kid, the shops down on Archer Avenue all had Polish signs. A big part of my growing up was going to the Polish delis and Polish restaurants.

Chicago is an important part of the Polish diaspora. But so is London. Like Chicago, London has some big Polish areas, especially Acton. Hammersmith is close to Acton, so there is a presence of Polish immigrants in Poland, as well. The other thing about Hammersmith is that the Polish Social & Cultural Association (or Polski Ośrodek Społeczno-Kulturalny) acts as a hub for British Poles or Polish immigrants. It’s a large building in Hammersmith that houses a gallery, two restaurants, and various offices of Polish institutions and bodies.

This afternoon, I went to the Café Maja for lunch this afternoon. It was crowded, as I think we hit the after-church crowd. Sundays are a huge social day for Polish Catholics. After church, families and friends often will make their way to a local deli or restaurant to eat Polish food, talk, gossip, and rest before another busy work week.

Café Maja’s entrance is on the side of the cultural association’s building. You walk into a really casual diner-style dining room. The menu is written on chalkboards behind the counter, and today’s offerings were familiar items: pierogi, Polish sausage, veal cutlet, borscht.

I ordered the grilled Polish sausage that came with two, perfect scoops of mashed potatoes. I also ordered a side of sauerkraut. My partner got the chicken cutlet with potatoes, and he ordered a side of red cabbage. We also ordered a plate of meat pierogi for the table as a starter.

While waiting for my food, I looked around the dining room, and indulged in some people watching, a favourite sport of mine. I saw tables with loud, raucous people, laughing and talking. Two old nuns were sitting at table near the counter. They were eating the tripe soup. The table next to me had some cinephiles who were talking about movies. An older woman behind me was holding court, lecturing her dining companions about etiquette (Emily Post angrily scolded one of her friends to not leave her elbows on the table)

Our food came, the plates crowding our plates. My sausage was scored, blistered and browned, with caramalized onions. The potatoes were perfect scoops, sprinkled with frizzy dill fronds. My partner’s cutlet was flat and nearly the size of the plate. It was golden and crispy, puffy. The pierogi came with little bits of bacon (it would’ve been nice if they came with soured cream or breadcrumbs)

The food was good and comforting, like Polish food is supposed to be. London has a few Polish haute cuisine restaurants, and while they’re good, I can never bring myself to pay lot for fancy, fussy Polish food. Polish food is meant to be hearty and simple and familiar. It’s the kind of food eaten on a cold, wintery day – or if you had a bad day. It’s not healthy food, and scanning the room, I probably saw a lot of hypertension and high cholesterol, but the draw of this kind of food is undeniable.

When you finish a Polish meal, you should be groaning a bit getting, and you should be needing a good stretch, as if the eating was a physically taxing exercise. A large Polish meal also requires that you walk home when you’re done, preferably a long distance, 30 minutes at least.