Easter in Quarantine

Easter used to be a constant thing in my life. Up until my young adulthood, it was always held at my grandparents’ house. In college, the celebration shifted to my aunts’ houses on alternating years. My mom came from a big Polish family – she was the middle of seven children – so, Easter was a BIG DEAL. An average gathering was about thirty people, and there was always a huge spread consisting of eggs (hard boiled and scrambled, possibly deviled some years), pierogies, kielbasa, chrzan, golombki, beets, babka, ham, turkey, hash… and some things that were not traditional polish, like soda bread, banana bread, fruit salad, etc. It was a FEAST like none other.

Easter got weird in my mid-adulthood. First came the year I was pregnant- I crossed the 38 week line on Easter Day, and my doula recommended I stay close to home. In my late-pregnancy nesting insanity, I cooked a Polish brunch for my spouse and myself. So, you know… enough food for six.

Little Chef’s first Easter was the last hurrah for my Grandmother after not hosting for years. She was selling her house, and it was the last scheduled gathering there. Bittersweet.

For Little Chef’s second Easter, my mother had broken her leg and was temporarily living at my grandmother’s apartment. I brought full Polish Easter on the road to serve to my immediate family, my    mom, and my brother while the rest of the extended clan gathered at my aunt’s. In a strange, dazed sort of way, I was VERY proud of myself for pulling that off on incredibly short notice.

Little Chef’s third Easter was fairly “normal.” We went to my Aunt’s house and picked up my Mom along the way. Unbeknownst to us, that would be my mom’s last Easter.

In 2019, we had a barely 2-month old baby and we’d only been in our new house for 3 months, but we hosted Easter for my in-laws, and I cooked a feast.

Then…. this year.

You know that monologue the Grinch has about Christmas coming “without ribbons, without tags, without packages, boxes, or bags?” That’s how Easter felt this year. Holy Week services were held over Zoom. I spent more time in front of a computer than I think I ever have.

I was hell-bent, though, on having a special day for Easter. We dressed up. I had managed to stock all of the essentials by the big day – we had mimosas, pierogies, kielbasa, eggs, and babka. I decided to skip making a ham, and then my neighbors mentioned that they had too much ham. We traded pierogies and babka for some ham, and everyone’s day got more delicious.

The babka was the real triumph; it was so hard to find yeast, because everyone went crazy when it was clear that we were locking down, so there was a run on it. I ended up getting a two-pound package from a wholesaler! I have plenty of yeast for the forseeable future.

If you’re looking for a good babka recipe, this one is the closest I’ve found to my great-grandmother’s babka. My family came from a part of Poland that is now part of the Ukraine (my great-grandmother left when World War 1 was brewing, so the lines were different then.). I had a hand-written copy of the original recipe, but it’s buried somewhere. This one is delicious. If you’re wondering, yes, you can substitute all-purpose flour for the bread flour. I never bother with the bread flour.

I hope with all of my heart that by next Easter, this is all behind us. That we can gather and feast and relax and laugh. It was strange and and somehow fitting to be celebrating the resurrection in the middle of a plague. I’m proud of pulling off the celebration that we did, and I’m glad we have these strings of tradition, of familiar and comforting foods, that can still be there in the midst of these crazy times. Having a touchstone of normalcy in these days is worth its weight in gold.

A few thoughts post-Easter

Here I am, continuing to mark time until CSA season begins, though we’ve just passed one of my favorite days for cooking: Easter.

This year was a transition year for us. Our winter was crazy – we moved in December, my mom died in January, and we had a baby in February. I want to move into hosting Easter, rather than traveling for it, but I (understandably) did not have it in me for a crowd, so we just had my in-laws (parents and siblings) over, and it was a really lovely day.

We did the standard Polish Easter fare that I count on each year, but when it came to golombki, I was in a bind. I love stuffed cabbage, but the thought of putting in all that work this year seemed like a drag. However, I remembered that there was an article about exactly this in an old issue of Simple & Delicious! AND, to boot, I’d marked the recipe in that article in my new organization system! (Yes, this recipe index is already proving useful!)

Thus, we made Slow-Cooker Golombki. Folks, this recipe was fabulous. It would take something special to convince me to go through the trouble of making regular golombki again, I think. This tasted just as good with hardly any effort. I also substituted ground turkey for the ground beef, to lighten it up, and it tasted great.

I didn’t document much of the cooking, though I do have a very satisfying picture of my plate before I dug in.

Happy Easter!

Easter Leftovers III: Soup Time

Leftovers often mean soup. Any time there’s a big portion of meat served, it’s almost a guarantee that soup will be one of the eventual leftovers.

Soup went two ways with this ham.

First, I went with split pea soup. It’s pretty traditional to use ham with split pea. I used ham stock that I made from the ham bone, plus I sauteed pieces of meat that then boiled in with the peas.

The last time I made split pea soup, it came out much thicker than I like. This time? It came out thinner than I like. I’m still learning. To compensate a little, I chunked up the soup by  adding some mixed vegetables near the end.

I’m very proud of the other direction I went with soup leftovers. This was a riff on a “Portugese Kale and Sausage Soup” that I’ve made many times. The soup works well with basically any smoky meat and any dark green. I’ve used sausage, kielbasa, and now ham, and I’ve used kale, spinach, mustard greens, turnip greens, and beet greens.

I sauteed onions and the ham, added spices and broth, and added the greens… and then the secret ingredient that really makes this soup special: brown mustard. If you’re looking for more of a zing, you could add hot sauce, cayenne pepper, or even horseradish. We tend to leave it to the individual servings to spice up.

Both of these soups freeze & reheat well.

Scenes from an Easter Kitchen

Easter is a big deal in my family – an unsurprising statement for a part Polish girl from a large family. Celebrations always include an absurd amount of food, particularly golabki, babka, pierogis, kielbasa, chrzan… I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to the spellings, but the food tastes like home.

The past few years have been tumultuous. Typically, we have all of us (30 or more) for brunch at one of the houses that can hold all of us. It’s been this way my entire life, yet the past few years have been interrupted. In 2014, I was 38 weeks pregnant and Easter was being held an hour and a half away. On the advice of my doula, I stayed put, cooked like crazy for the two of us, and ate with wild, pregnant abandon.

2015 marked Little Chef’s first Easter, at nearly a year old, and the last Easter at my Grandmother’s house before she sold it.

In 2016, my mother broke her leg severely in February. By Easter, she was out of the rehab center but was living with my grandmother in her wheelchair-friendly senior apartment. Gram went to Easter at my aunt’s, but I brought a full Polish Easter to the apartment to share with Mom, my husband, my son, and my brother.

2017 looked like we’d be back to normal, but my aunt got sick shortly before Easter and decided she couldn’t host. The family scattered to have separate, smaller gatherings, and I hauled all of the makings of a good Polish Easter to my mom’s condo. We invited my in-laws over and had a wonderful feast.

2018 saw the revival of my aunt hosting Easter, though several of my cousins are traveling abroad at the moment, so it was fairly quiet (for us). Here I was, with a free ham from Shop Rite, a driving urge to cook and blast Jesus Christ Superstar, and all that was requested of me was my lemon raisin babka.

You know where this is going, don’t you?

After a long stretch of disillusionment, I began attending church again over the past couple of years… regularly so in the last year or so. I’ve gotten involved with a ministry there that involves cooking meals for people who are homebound, which has been a source of contentment for me. (Surprise – I like to cook. Who knew?) Well, since I didn’t need to host Easter this year, I set up Easter dinners for all of the  people we serve. I also made beans for the Easter Bunny BBQ and muffins for coffee hour.

It felt glorious. By the end of it, I was exhausted and tired of smelling ham, but it was all worth it.

I’ve spent this week creatively using the leftovers… more on that to come.

Happy Easter!