winter tastes: 10 posts

An Evening of Bounty

If you’ve ever sung or listened to “Carol of the Bells”, you’ve indirectly partaken in one of the oldest Ukrainian traditions of shchedrivky. The old style New Year’s Eve on January 13th is called Shchedriy Vechir, which means Bountiful or Generous Evening, and part of the celebration includes young women and men visiting their neighbors and singing shchedrivky, couplets wishing good fortune, health and much of bounty in the new year. The most famous song associated with Shchedriy Vechir is “Schedryk” (Щедрик), which was arranged by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1916 and later adapted by Peter Wilhousky as an English Christmas carol, “Carol of the Bells”.

ukrainian christmas

Old traditions are closely intertwined with the customs. Shchedriy Vechir also has the alternative name of Malanka in honor of Saint Melania the Younger whose feast is celebrated on the same day. But the old, pre-Christian customs color the festivities.

Different from carols, which are performed starting on Christmas Eve on January 6th and until the Epiphany on January 19th (the Ukrainian Orthodox calendar still follows the one established by Julius Cesar), shchedrivky focuses on the bounty of nature. The original Ukrainian lyrics for “Carol of the Bells,” for instance, tell the story of a swallow visiting a household and describing all of the rich gifts the family is to see in the spring.

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Uzvar : Ukrainian Spiced Fruit Compote

On January 6th my house smells like dried apricots and honey. It’s the Orthodox Christmas Eve, which in Ukrainian is called Svyata Vecherya, the Holy Supper, and two dishes central to it are kutya and uzvar. I have written about kutya already, but uzvar deserves special mention, because this spiced fruit compote is not only delicious, it has a heady perfume.

uzvar1

Uzvar is not only paired with kutya for the Ukrainian Christmas and Easter, it’s a favorite winter dessert in my family. It’s simple, healthy and can be varied based on what’s available in the cupboard. I can still picture my great-grandfather, Sergiy, laying out sliced apricots to dry on the roof of the garden shed and smoking plums over cherry wood. “For uzvar in the winter,” he would say, while turning the dark, jammy fruit.

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Jan Hagel Dutch Cinnamon and Almond Cookie

Are the American Santa Claus and Belgian St Nicholas (or Dutch Sinterklaas) related? When I casually mentioned that they must be, a Belgian friend vehemently denied that there is any relation. “Santa Claus lives with his reindeer on the North Pole, and St Nicholas lives in Spain,” she reasoned. Well, the Saint Nicholas I know from the Russian Orthodox tradition protects sailors and looks like neither the jolly Santa nor the regal Sinterklaas.

janhagel1

Whoever St Nicholas is, his birthday is celebrated on December 5th in the Netherlands and on the 6th in Belgium, and it’s the main day for exchanging gifts around here. I simply go along with the flow. An extra holiday in the year? Why not celebrate it too!

Baking is a part of any celebration, and the pastry shops in both Belgium and Holland work overtime to produce speculoos, rice flan tarts, gingerbreads and other treats. This year my baking has a distinctive Dutch accent, and for St Nicholas Day, I made Jan Hagel (pronounced as yon hah ghel), a delicate cookie with a crunchy layer of almond flakes and sugar crystals.

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Simple Bean Salad Recipe With Variations

Do you remember the scene from Amélie in which Audrey Tautou’s character delights in sticking her hand into a barrel of dry beans in her local grocery? I suspect that my supermarket might call for security if I tried to follow her example but I love the idea of such simple pleasures. Anyone who likes cooking knows that the enjoyment starts even before the food touches the lips. Long before I start preparing the meal—provided that I am not in a rush—I anticipate the textures and scents: the crisp sound of a knife cutting through an onion, the murmur of a pot of soup on a low flame, the bracing freshness of grated lemon peel. Even something as simple as a bean salad can be a gourmet experience.

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Two Orange Salads Against Winter Blues

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My appreciation of citrus fruit came not because of its taste but rather its aroma. As a child I shied away from acidic flavors and even the sprinkling of sugar over the orange slices my mother would prepare did not endear me to their sting of tartness. It was not until I started helping in the kitchen that I discovered the fragrant excitement of citrus zest. A grating of lemon peel over grilled chicken uplifted a familiar dish. Candied orange peels folded into oatmeal made my daily breakfast more memorable. Slowly I grew to love the acidity and to welcome the way it made other flavors shimmer. As I explored more, I discovered the pleasant bitter taste of pomelo, the floral richness of mandarins, the sultry complexity of Seville oranges and the piney sweetness of kumquats. Thanks to the constant development of new hybrids, the citrus family is large and varied, so I can make up for the years of shunning oranges as a kid.

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