Keep a Lid on It

Since I will not be around during Easter I wanted to post this column, even though it will not appear in the paper until Wednesday. So all of you, my faithful followers, get first dibs on this one. I hope you enjoy it. Happy Easter!

Every special occasion or holiday usually calls for certain traditional foods to be prepared and served. Family members wait in anticipation for these favourites to appear on the dinner table at least once a year. Such is the case in in our household, especially at Easter.

Those of Ukrainian descent will no doubt be familiar with a dish that goes by the name of studenetz or the much more unappetizing label of head cheese. Although at one time the head of a pig was used in the preparation the recipe has since evolved, and now pork hocks and feet are used, and sometimes gelatin to set the dish. This delicacy might be an acquired taste but what’s not to love about delicious morsels of flavour-laden pork in a jelled broth. Add a splash of vinegar just before eating and a gourmet treat is at hand. But, as is the case with many unusual entrees, the ingredients and method of preparation are best kept a secret from guests. And let me explain why.

A number of years ago some friends and family were spending Easter with us. My friend Tara had been raised in an English household, but over the years she had acquired a great love of Ukrainian food. So I always tried to cook a few Ukrainian dishes whenever she was visiting. This week-end was a particularly busy one as I was getting all the items ready for the Easter basket which would be blessed in church and I was also preparing a lavish dinner to which a number of people had been invited.

I was up early on the Saturday morning trying to get several dishes started when Tara wandered into the kitchen, poured herself a coffee and then commented that something smelled very good. Of course when you have onions, garlic, celery and a variety of spices simmering, the result is a most tantalizing aroma. I was so busy that I did not notice her go over to the stove, but as I turned my head I realized she was about to lift the lid of the stockpot where all the ingredients for head cheese were cooking.

“Noooooo!!!” I warned, but it was too late. When I said earlier that the name was unappetizing, imagine the shock of unexpectedly being greeted by pork hocks and hooves (with a few chicken feet thrown in for good measure) bubbling merrily away on the stove. Tara stood there, lid in one hand, a horrified look on her face, as she made  funny eeking sounds. She seemed too stunned to know what to do next as she stood there frozen, unable to put the lid down. I gently took it from my traumatized friend, set it back down and tried to explain how the dish was made. Even though I assured her that only the meat was used and that the broth would be carefully skimmed and strained, she seemed less than impressed. As a matter of fact, I don’t think she heard a word I said.

At dinner that night she did not touch the head cheese, and she seemed to be suspiciously eyeing every other dish. It appeared that her love affair with Ukrainian food might have sustained irreparable damage.

If I learned one thing that week-end, it was that sometimes not knowing is better and sometimes keeping a lid on things is the best policy. Happy Easter and, in the Ukrainian equivalent of Bon Appetit, Smachnoho!

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