A Vegetarian Estonian

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:

Rye bread
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)

Mix together
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.

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The Empire of the Brassicaceae strikes back

I was cutting up a couple of broccoli crowns this evening, and my dog Penny was lurking at my feet, expecting to be tossed several green florets, as is her due. She and her canine partner-in-crime Bailey are veggie-loving dogs. They’ll happily devour not just broccoli, but also baby carrots, zucchini slices, pieces of cauliflower, raw and cooked green beans, peas, sweet potato fries, cucumber chunks, and more.

But my mind was on half a dozen different things, and the knife slipped, and cut my thumb. That should remind me to practice mindfulness next time I slay a broccoli, but I’ll forget. Anyway, it was probably karmic payback for all the destruction I wrought earlier in the day on the broccoli’s distant relatives, the hairy bittercress infesting the yard.

Bittercress, also known as cardamine, is a member of the vast empire of the cabbage family, which includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, mustard, radishes, turnips, watercress , beets, chard and many more. I like many of them, but the hairy bittercress is something else altogether.

Know thine enemy

Most people don’t notice bittercress, unless they happen to be gardeners or lawn fanatics. It’s a small, unobtrusive-looking plant, with a central stem (or two, or four, or a dozen) rising from a rosette of basal leaves that are usually a dull green, sometimes dark purple. These stems are topped by tiny white four-petaled flowers smaller than peppercorns, and they are the first things to bloom in late winter, long before the snowdrops and crocuses have risen from the thawing earth. These tiny flowers quickly go to seed, forming brown pods less than a centimeter long. And when something touches them, they explode and scatter seeds all over the place. Try to weed them out, and they spit seeds defiantly the moment you touch them.

No matter how many of the dratted things I yank out, more appear, seemingly out of nowhere. I swear they send out secret signals alerting every other bittercress within a given distance to send up more stems and start flowering like mad. As though there were some sort of sinister sentience among them, with but a single goal: to take over the garden, then the lawn, the neighborhood and ultimately the entire world, mwa-ha-ha-ha!

Edible?

I didn’t know until I looked cardamine up in Wikipedia today that some even consider the wretched weed edible. No, thank you! My Euell Gibbons days of stalking edible wild plants are over.

I can still point out various things in the back yard and tell someone whether they can be eaten, and some day when civilization as we know it collapses, this knowledge may come in handy. But my ventures into weed cuisine have generally not been worth the effort.

Except perhaps  for that time in the 1970s when I proved to my co-workers that I could make lunch from the weeds in the parking lot. That was back when I worked at the Somerset Messenger-Gazette, a large weekly paper serving Somerset County, N.J., now defunct like most of the newspapers for which I’ve worked. (And it wasn’t my fault they died, honest.) But I digress, as usual.

Parking lot lunch

Armed with a skillet, knife, an egg, cooking oil, bread crumbs and a few other items, I went to work on the stems of some plant that grew in the lot. Cardoon, I think. I battered and fried them, and I have to admit they tasted slightly of motor oil from the cars. None of the folks in the editorial department dared to sample them, but the looks on their faces were priceless. They kept eyeing me all afternoon to see if I would suddenly collapse, frothing at the mouth, but they were sorely disappointed.

Doll’s

I’d far rather cook and eat pasta broccoli the way they used to make it at Doll’s Restaurant in New Brunswick, NJ, seasoned with fennel seeds, garlic and red pepper flakes. This is my comfort food, and I made it tonight for my 60th birthday dinner. We’ll go out for the vegetarian buffet at our favorite Indian place this weekend, but tonight I wanted pasta broccoli.

Broccoli is kind of a funny thing with me. I don’t believe I tasted fresh broccoli, cooked or raw, until my late teens, and it was love at first taste. My mother started using the dismal frozen stuff at some point, but like other Estonians, she was unfamiliar with broccoli when I was a kid. It didn’t grow there — too cold or something. There wasn’t even a word for it in Estonian, unlike cauliflower, which they call lillekapsas – flower cabbage.

Regular cabbage, one of the staple foods of Estonia, is called kapsas, a word derived from the Russian kapusta, which ultimately comes from the Latin word for head, caput.

Ah, sauerkraut

Estonians raise and cook cabbage in many ways, but their favorite dish is sauerkraut. They call it hapukapsas. It’s sometimes prepared with barley, and is sweeter than the stuff Americans pile on their hot dogs, because we rinse the pickled cabbage thoroughly before cooking. My mom made great sauerkraut, but I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate it when I was young; I refused to eat it.

Today I rarely prepare sauerkraut, and when I do, it never comes out like hers. My brother’s version is wonderful. If I get up to New Jersey during the summer when there’s some big bash going on at the Lakewood Estonian House, I always get a bowl of the wonderful hot sauerkraut soup they sell in the kitchen. It’s unbeatable, even on a simmering August night when it’s 90 degrees outside..

Now that Estonia is independent, they have access to many more foods and cuisines than they did in the Soviet era. And I see that they have finally gotten into broccoli and given it an Estonian name: brokoli. Nice and simple. I found the word in a recipe book brought home from my last visit there.

Do they know it’s brokoli?

I wonder what, if anything, Estonians call broccoli rabe, also known as rapini, the vegetable that heralds spring in the supermarkets? Do they even know what it is? It’s actually more closely related to turnips than to broccoli.

I was introduced to this deliciously bitter green by my first mother-in-law, who was Italian. She rinsed it off, cut out the toughest stems, and steamed it slowly in a covered pan with only the water that clung to the leaves. The stuff was amazing; after eating it you could feel the vitamins coursing through the veins. Green Geritol, if you will.

And I’ll definitely need that green energy to tackle the rapidly advancing hordes of hairy bittercress that are silently marching across the lawn, even as we sleep,  preparing to conquer us all.

Immigrants on the loose

So here we were in Wayne, NJ, the immigrant kids (as we thought of ourselves even though we were born in the U.S.) dumped among the white-bread White Anglo-Saxon-Protestant, German, Irish and Italian kids whose families had arrived a couple of generations earlier.  And the Dutch kids whose ancestors colonized north Jersey, and whose language was spoken here widely before the English took it over.

When we were children, there were no Asians, no blacks, virtually no Jews and pretty much nobody else too unusual in our community.  We were less than 20 miles from New York City, and Wayne was as white as Wonder Bread.  And equally lacking in flavor.

My mom, like any good Estonian mother, forbade us to eat Wonder Bread or anything like it.  She called it soft white mush. Our sandwiches, when we toted them to school, were made on heavy dark rye or pumpernickel, breads with substance. And they were made with butter.

None of this foreign stuff like mayonnaise was acceptable to my mom; Estonians used butter.

And not salted butter either. Salting butter, she claimed, was done solely to conceal the fact that it was spoiled.  Even now, just a few months shy of turning 60, I regard salted butter as an exotic delicacy.

Our determined mom even spread butter under the peanut butter.

Pumpernickel – butter – Skippy -strawberry  jam – pumpernickel. That was the recipe for one of our lunch sandwiches, and it definitely did not look like the sandwiches of our classmates. Another day’s sandwich might be rye – butter – salami – rye.  Or pumpernickel – butter – ham – pumpernickel.  Rye-butter-tuna salad-rye.

And then came sixth grade, and the school cafeteria. Hot lunch, cold lunch, submarine  sandwiches: American cuisine as interpreted by the lunch ladies.  Among my discoveries was pizza. At school it was presented as a flat disc about six inches in diameter, topped with a bland tomato sauce and bland melted cheese. How amazing! How different from our Estonian diet of meat and potatoes and sauerkraut. I raved about pizza at home.

One day at the supermarket, I spotted small  pizzas in the frozen food section, and urged my mother to buy some. To my surprise and delight, she did.

However, she did not put them in the oven to bake. Mama added a special twist of her own: she fried them in butter. She even flipped them over and fried the side with the sauce and cheese, which made quite a mess. But we all loved them. The fried pizzas were juicier and tastier than the ones at the cafeteria, and we devoured them in happy ignorance.

So the very first time I begged a quarter from my father and went with a friend to Tony’s Pizza in Pompton Lakes, I experienced Pizza Nirvana.

That huge hot pizza slice , speckled with unfamiliar oregano and dripping with melted mozzarella, was the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten. After conducting more research, I went and informed my mother that Americans-do-not-fry-pizzas-in-butter-they-bake-them-in-ovens.  I must have been about 12.

Mama, ever the cosmopolite, decided to branch out into the mysteries of pasta, only we didn’t call it pasta back then; it was either spaghetti or macaroni. She clipped a recipe out of Family Circle and proceeded to make tomato sauce and meatballs, with boiled spaghetti.

When it came to the table, the dish looked peculiar, to say the least. It was pink. My brother and I knew that regardless of how the lunch ladies might decide to  interpret spaghetti sauce in the cafeteria, it was always red.  We didn’t discover pasta Alfredo and pasta Aglio e Olio and pesto sauce until considerably later in life.

Not only was the sauce pink, but the spaghetti underneath it was littered with bits of potato.

Mom explained that the sauce, as made from the recipe, looked thin to her, so she added some heft in the form of sour cream. My brother and I groaned.

And the potato pieces? Evidently our father insisted on potatoes at dinner, and refused to eat this peculiar foreign spaghetti stuff.  Not wanting to wash two pots, she simply boiled the spaghetti with the potatoes. At least the meatballs seemed normal to our uneducated palates. I don’t believe  my mother ever purchased garlic in her life.

We didn’t have the money to go to restaurants, so our experiences with cooking other than our mother’s was limited to  meals at the homes of family friends who were Estonian, snacks at the homes of our American playmates, and the culinary delights of the cafeteria at  Schuyler-Colfax Junior High School.

Despite these minor mishaps, our mother was a wonderful cook. Like her own mother, she could make  tasty gravy out of almost anything. She brewed marvelous fragrant coffee. She made sweet-tart lingonberry jam from imported lingonberries, which are like tiny cranberries that grow in northern Europe.

She made pickled pumpkin, a lovely traditional sweet-and-sour addition to Estonian smorgasbord tables.  Her pink beet-and-potato salad (called rosolje  in Estonian), mushroom salad, herring salad and regular potato salad were better than anyone else’s.

Her cakes were out of this world. She made heavy moist sponge cakes using a dozen carefully separated eggs. You tiptoed in and out of the kitchen while it baked, lest it fall.

When the sponge cake was done and properly cooled, she would slice it into two layers, and fill the middle with crushed strawberries steeped in a little red currant wine and sugar. The top layer went back on, and she covered it with her mocha frosting, made with butter and sugar,  coffee and a little cocoa powder, and I can’t recall what else.  This cake was sublime.

She grew gooseberries and made gooseberry tart, which I imagine few Americans have tasted.  She made delicious Estonian-style sauerkraut, which is only slightly sour and definitely sweet,  laced with caraway seeds or cooked barley. I can’t really describe it, nor can I make it. My brother can.

Years after she passed away, many old family friends remembered my mother as an excellent cook.

But there was one thing she made that I avoided like the plague. Sült. Americans call it head cheese, but it’s more like an unsweetened Jello mold made with pigs feet that have been boiled to bits and the bones taken out. Real Estonians love the stuff, devouring it with vinegar or mustard. I used to get nightmares just looking at it.

Because we stuck to Estonian food at home, I never tasted a bagel with cream cheese and lox until college, when Jewish friends dragged me to a diner. Heavenly!

Another college friend introduced me to the joys of falafel in Greenwich Village. On another trip to the city, he tried to refrain from snickering when I innocently ordered the hot version of a dish at a Pakistani restaurant, choking some of it down with glass after glass of water, tears running down my face, before giving up. I never dared to tryPakistani food again, though I adore Indian cuisine and enjoyed dining at a Nepalese restaurant last summer.

Chinese food was also a novel experience after the bland chow mein at school. On one dreadful  occasion, the cafeteria crew at our high school ran short of canned chow mein, and stretched it out with canned spinach and oatmeal, of all things.  It was ghastly.

Not all the food at school was bad. Our high school cafeteria served a wonderful macaroni and cheese dish with stewed tomatoes. I liked it so much that when I came home from college early for Thanksgiving break, I sneaked into the high school cafeteria and bought a plate of it.   In later years, I tried to re-create it from memory, and achieved a reasonable facsimile:

Wayne Hills High School Macaroni and Cheese

16 oz. dry elbow macaroni

4 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons white flour

1½ cups milk or skim milk

Paprika and celery seed or celery salt to taste

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup grated cheddar cheese

½ cup breadcrumbs, plain or Italian seasoned.

Olive oil cooking spray

Cook a package of elbow macaroni according to directions. – do not overcook. Meanwhile spray a casserole dish with olive oil cooking spray. Add the macaroni when it is cooked and drained.

While the macaroni cooks, slowly melt 4 tablespoons butter in a saucepan and remove from heat. Stir in 2 tablespoons of white flour until thoroughly blended. Then gradually stir in 1½ cups of milk, stirring with a whisk until the mixture is blended and free of lumps. Add salt and a dash or two of paprika and celery salt or celery seed.  Cook on medium heat, stirring frequently, until the milk mixture thickens.  Remove from heat and pour over the cooked macaroni.

Stir in 1 cup or more of grated cheddar – depending on how cheesy you like it.

Sprinkle breadcrumbs on top and spray lightly with the cooking spray.

Bake 35-40 minutes at 350°.

Top each serving with stewed tomatoes. Serves 6.

(To reduce cholesterol, substitute olive oil for melted butter, and use low-fat cheese and skim milk.)

Stewed tomatoes

2 15-ounce cans stewed tomatoes

2 heaping tablespoons cornstarch

1 15-ounce can water

½ can water

Pour the tomatoes and liquid in a pot and add a can of water. If you want, cut the tomato slices into quarters. Heat slowly.

Meanwhile, stir 1 heaping tablespoon cornstarch in about 1/2 can of water until dissolved. When the tomatoes begin to simmer, add the water-cornstarch mixture and cook until the liquid is thickened.

Serves 6.

Enjoy!