From black-eyed peas to cabbage and lentils, the New Year arrival welcomes old traditions for "lucky" foods to enjoy and even a few ingredients to avoid, according to lore.
"In Polish tradition, people celebrate New Year's Eve as the feast of St. Sylvester with Polish Beet Soup,"said Reverend Walter Rakoczy of St. Mary the Immaculate Conception Parish in Michigan City.
"The next day, people would eat Hunter's Stew, or in Polish it's bigos. It is considered to be a very wealthy dish. They serve that to their guests sort of as a wish for happiness and prosperity in the coming year."
Along with bigos, other New Year traditions are as numerous as the many individuals who follow the feasting beliefs. Black-eyed peas, lentils and beans resemble coins and are thought to be a common magnet to encourage wealth. Cabbage, with its green color reminiscent of cash, is also a favorite for expecting an influx of money. Pork (or even pig-shaped cookies served in some cases) are symbolic since pigs are said, according to legend, to never voluntarily walk backward, and instead, "root" forward using their snouts like a digging tool, representing a motion to the future days ahead.
In contrast, chicken and poultry should be avoided, since fowl scratches backward, and old wives tales warn dining on such fare results in "watching good luck fly away in the future year."
"It is part of our human nature; we like to have rituals," Rakoczy said.
"It kind of reminds us of our past. It reminds us of people who have gone on already. It serves a lot of different purposes, especially if it involves food, because it tastes good. We like to have something to celebrate, and we have set ways of celebrating, which sometimes have been set for centuries."
Among the traditional dishes Rakoczy noted, bigos is a specialty of 44-year-old Stan Stefanski, who has earned a reputation for his Polish cuisine at his Big Frank's Sausage Company in East Chicago, Ind.
"In college I met a Russian girl who showed me how to make bigos," Stefanski said.
"I absolutely loved this dish from the start. It has been one of my favorite Polish foods for a long time. I practiced making it until I came up with a recipe that I liked best."
Stan's Easy Bigos
1 pound of smoked sausage
1/2 pound of bacon
1/2 pound of Polish ham
1 pound of red potatoes
1-1/2 pounds of mushrooms
4 pounds of kraut (fresh from barrel is best), rinsed if desired
1 tablespoon of caraway seeds
2 (10-ounce) cans of cream of mushroom soup
DIRECTIONS: Cut up all of the meat, including uncooked bacon, into small pieces. Dice the cleaned and scrubbed potatoes and chop mushrooms. Add these prepared ingredients and all remaining ingredients into baking pan and mix well together. A 1/2 glass of red wine if desired can be added if desired, as well as adding black pepper, chopped onions and garlic powder for preferred tastes. Bake at 375 degrees for about 2 hours. Add water as needed, and check temperature to cook until tests to 165 degrees.
Makes 12 servings.
Black Eye Pea Cakes
3 cups black eye peas (cooked and drained)
2 tablespoons minced green pepper
3 tablespoons minced red bell peppers
1 tablespoon minced white or Spanish onion
2 tablespoons minced green onions
2 tablespoons chopped fine cilantro
1/2 cup vegetable oil, divided use
2 tablespoons hot sauce
4 tablespoons bread crumbs
DIRECTIONS: Saute peppers and onions in 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, until tender. Remove from fire and drain. In mixing bowl, mix black eye peas, peppers, onions, cilantro, green onions and hot sauce. Add bread crumbs, mix well and mash with potato masher. Mix again until mixture holds together. With an ice cream scooper, make patties. Brown in remaining oil in a hot 10-inch cast iron skillet. Remove from skillet and bake in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes. Makes 6 to 8 patties.
* Recipe from Chef Joel Nickson of Chicago's Wishbone Restaurant.
Easy Lentil Stew
1 cup dried lentils
2 tablespoons oil or shortening
2 onions, chopped
2 pounds cubed pork meat
6 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 cup uncooked rice
DIRECTIONS: Soak lentils for two hours, with just enough water to cover them. Drain and set aside. In a saucepan, heat oil or shortening over a medium heat and add onions and cook for a few minutes to soften, before adding meat and browning evenly on all sides. In a soup pot, heat the 6 cups of water to simmering and add the spices. (If desired, a couple chopped carrots and diced celery ribs can be added, cooking until slightly soft). Add rice and lentils, cover and cook over a low heat for 10 minutes, or until rice and lentils are soft. Add in the meat and onions and continue to simmer for another 15 minutes, adjusting seasonings as desired and adding more water, if needed to create desired consistency. Makes 12 servings.