Trying to cook traditional Estonian dishes is a challenge if you’re a vegetarian.
Since we gave up eating meat a few years ago, I’ve come to realize that Estonian holiday meals are a problem. A traditional Estonian Christmas Eve dinner, for example, features roast pork, sauerkraut, potatoes and blood sausage, accompanied by lingonberrry jam. Take away the meat, and there’s not much left. Moreover, the sauerkraut is cooked with lots of fatty pork for that special flavor. None of us will eat blood sausage, fortunately, but I’ve been trying to develop a menu that includes some of the dishes and accommodates the three vegetarians.
Our older daughter has been a vegetarian for 16 years. Her younger sister still eats meat. I often make Indian, Chinese and Italian-style dishes that are okay with everybody. But dealing with holiday meals is a challenge.
Two years ago I found a recipe for meatless mushroom strudel that makes a nice main dish for Christmas Even though it’s not Estonian, it goes with the (meatless) sauerkraut and potatoes. I still make a small amount of roast pork for the younger daughter and any guests who are not of the vegetarian persuasion.
Thanksgiving is a whole other story. I’m not even sure my immigrant family celebrated it until I was around 12, when my mother decided to give it a try. It was not a big deal to us.
I’ve never cooked anything Estonian on Thanksgiving – only American dishes. Some Estonian-American friends make a pot of sauerkraut to serve alongside the turkey and other fixings, but I feel there’s enough to do without adding another item to the menu. As for the vegetarian aspect, we’ve experimented with the tofu turkeys and the Quorn turkeys, and frankly I can’t stand them.
So I’ve been cruising the internet searching for something that would make a festive but meatless main dish, without being extremely complicated. Stuffed acorn squash seems to be the answer.
The vegetarian Reuben
During my quest I made a fabulous discovery — Vegetarian Reuben sandwiches. It’s been ages since I had a decent Reuben, the kind you get in New York City and parts of New Jersey. Marylanders for the most part are clueless about them. Needless to say, my Estonian immigrant parents never heard of things like Reubens, pastrami or corned beef, and as a result I was unacquainted with them until I was in my 20s. I never knew what a bagel was either, until I got to college.
The best Reubens I knew were from the late, lamented Hockey’s Deli on Albany Street in New Brunswick, NJ, back before that block was urbanly renewed into a big chain hotel a few decades ago. Believe me, this was not an improvement. Many wonderful little ethnic eateries and bookstores in New Brunswick vanished as the result of redevelopment. The town used to teem with Hungarian restaurants, but I think they’re all gone. In the 70s or 80s there was an influx of refugees from Lebanon who contributed their Middle Eastern dishes to the local dining scene. Gone. Now there are expensive places with bland corporate menus, and one holdout, Doll’s, which was relocated to make room for another of New Brunswick’s multitude of parking garages. My daughter still drops in at Doll’s when she’s in town.
Here is the Vegetarian Reuben, adapted to reduce some of the calories:
Reduced fat Swiss cheese
Sauerkraut (preferable the kind that comes refrigerated in plastic bags)
Butter (I use a spread made with butter and olive oil – easier to spread and less cholesterol)
Homemade Russian dressing
Drain the sauerkraut well and warm it a bit in the microwave.
Butter one side of a slice of rye and put it butter side down in a frying pan. Top with cheese, some sauerkraut, more cheese, and another slice of bread. Butter the top slice and start cooking over medium heat. Push it down with a spatula and flip over to brown the other side. Serve hot with Russian dressing on the side for dipping.
Russian Dressing (this is an amalgam of several recipes)
1/2 cup light mayonnaise
2 tablespoons ketchup
2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
A few dashes of paprika
A few dashes of celery seed or celery salt
I made this last week. My daughters swooned.
But getting back to the issue of finding vegetarian Estonian recipes, I learned that during the Soviet occupation, meat was extremely difficult to find. When Estonia regained its freedom in 1991, my aunt and cousin told me they hadn’t eaten it in a very long time. So what did they cook in its place? Surely there must be a variety of meatless dishes that Estonians relied on during those long years.
Estonian peasant food
In the 19th century, meat was a rare delicacy for the typical Estonian peasant, according to Silvia Kalvik, who published a cookbook called (translated) Estonian Cuisine in 1981. In the 1800s, she writes, the main meal of the peasants consisted of porridge or soup, usually barley soup. It was served with bread and, if available, salted herring. Other typical soups were based on beans, peas, lentils, cabbage and fish. During the summers, milk soup was frequently served.
While the Estonian pea soup my mother made always included a ham bone, it seems to me that one could find fairly balanced vegetarian dishes among these older traditional foods. Sour milk, milk curds and roasted meal made from a combination of grains and pulses (beans, peas, lentils) were other protein sources in the peasant diet.
Hemp seed recipes
Estonians also used to eat hemp seeds, though not in the 20th century. My mother’s very old Estonian cookbook includes a recipe for pirukad (pierogies) filled with mashed hemp seed, which they called kanep (derived from the word cannabis). Mashed hemp seed, which probably resembled peanut butter, was also spread on bread and baked in pies. I doubt that their hemp, which was grown primarily in eastern and southern Estonia, contained enough THC to get anyone high. There were other foods prepared with hemp seed.
“Hemp seed milk was a milk substitute poured on soups or served with porridges when the cows were not in milk, ” Kalvik writes.
Obviously I’m not going to start making Estonian hemp seed dishes, because the stuff remains illegal in most states. If the laws change and people begin growing low-THC hemp to make rope and fabric, it would be interesting to try out some of those hemp seed-based peasant foods and find out what they were like.