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To Market

Happy heritage

Traditions season ethnic feasts this month as local folks celebrate roots and remembrance.

Published December 7, 2005

[Times photos: William Dunkley]
Violetta Sielchan, right, of St. Petersburg teaches her daughter, Nastassja, 8, the secrets of preparing babka, a Polish bread traditionally served during the Christmas season.
Browned and fragrant, freshly baked babka will hold a festive spot at the Sielchan family’s holiday table; they will share the feast with parishioners from St. Mary’s Polish National Catholic Church in St. Petersburg.

Holidays are a time to create memories and nostalgia and to revisit treasured family recipes and traditions that may date back centuries or may have migrated with dreams across oceans.

They stir both immigrants and those for whom ancestral lands are a distant past to seek the aromas and tastes of their ancestral roots.

It's why ethnic and mainstream stores make sure their December offerings include specialties from live eels to gravlax to Hanukkah gelt and casreep, a thick, black liquid used for making Guyanese pepperpot. Proprietors must have beets for Polish borscht, sorrel for a spicy Caribbean drink, matzo meal for latkes and salted cod for Brazilian bolinho de bacalhau.

For Violetta Sielchan, who was born in Poland, Christmas is a time to instill Old World tradition in her America-born children, Nicholas, 12, and Nastassja, 8.

"I try to pass it on to the children so they remember where their parents came from and remember their heritage. And honor my mom, especially, because she taught me," said Sielchan, whose husband, the Rev. John Sielchan, is the priest at St. Mary's Polish National Catholic Church in St. Petersburg.

That tradition means making everything from scratch, including babka, the delicious, sweet Polish bread. Depending on the recipe, it can be chock-full of nuts, poppy seeds, dried fruit or even a generous helping of Polish vodka.

Central to Polish Christmas celebrations is the Wigilia, or vigil supper, which is served on Christmas Eve after the sighting of the first star. Steeped in religious symbolism, it is customary to set a place for an unexpected guest, who some hope, might be Christ himself. The meatless meal can have as many as 12 courses. It begins with the breaking and sharing of the Oplatek, which is similar to a communion wafer, but much larger and rectangular.

Some of St. Mary's parishioners will join the Sielchans for the festive meal.

"Since we don't have any family here, we do it for anyone who would like to come," said Violetta Sielchan, who will prepare the food over several days with other St. Mary's women.

The menu will include pierogi stuffed with sauerkraut or mushrooms, borscht, baked or fried fish, pickled herring prepared with sour cream or in oil with lots of onions, and desserts such as cheesecake, apple cake, poppy seed rolls and dried fruit compote.

Parishioner Sophie Gasztold said it's traditional to serve babka after the Christmas Eve meal, "with tea or coffee, while the kids open the gifts."

At Sugar Loaf Emporium in Pinellas Park, owners Erasmo Castro and his wife, Elaine Araujo, are ready for shoppers looking for Brazilian, Portuguese and Hispanic items. It's where Joyce Alves and her large extended Brazilian-American family go when they want a special ingredient. It's traditional, said Alves, to serve hors d'ouevres such as coxinha de galinha, made with mashed potato and chicken, pastels, a deep-fried stuffed pastry, and codfish cakes.

"People usually start coming to your house about 9 p.m.," Alves said.

A bigger meal is customarily served after midnight, but Alves said her Americanized family now serves everything together. "The house is full, usually it's every age, grandparents, parents, children," she said.

For Chaya Korf, December means Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights which begins this year at sundown Dec. 25. The celebration calls for eating foods fried in oil.

"Probably the most famous is doughnuts and latkes," said Korf, who helped her husband, Rabbi Alter Korf, establish the Chabad Jewish Center in St. Petersburg.

This month, the center, which regularly offers courses in Jewish cooking, is teaching women to make sufganiot, or Israeli doughnuts. They traditionally are filled with jelly and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Korf also makes latkes, which are potato pancakes. She sometimes adds zucchini.

"If I want it to be more healthy, I make them with sweet potatoes," said Korf, who shops with care in order to observe Jewish dietary laws.

At Jo-El's in St. Petersburg, which carries kosher foods, owner Joel Goetz and his wife, Ellen, will sell hundreds of prepared latkes for Hanukkah. The store also sells packaged latke mixes and frozen latkes. Joel Goetz said that applesauce and sour cream to top the latkes, brisket, chicken and Hanukkah gelt (chocolate coins) also will be big sellers during the holiday.

Also ready for the December crowds is Caribbean Trade and Grocery on N Nebraska Avenue in Tampa. Norma Wilson, whose husband, Claude, owns the store, said they have to be prepared for immigrants from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Guyana and other countries throughout the Caribbean.

"Christmas is a treat, so they get the whole family together and they just want to feel like they're home," she said.

The list of items that are a must for Christmas seems endless. It includes bami, a flat, round Jamaican bread made of cassava (yucca) that is soaked in milk or water and fried, snapper and boniato, a Caribbean sweet potato. The store also must stock ackee, a Jamaican fruit that is served with salted cod and cooked green bananas. There's also mauby, a tree bark the Guyanese use to make a bitter drink that is an acquired taste. Wilson said the store also carries solomon gundy, a fish paste she refers to as "Jamaican caviar," and the ingredients to make the dense black fruit cake enjoyed in many Caribbean countries at Christmastime.

Shoppers get frantic as the holiday nears, Wilson said. "People leave things till the last minute and then they ask you, "You open Christmas morning?' "

Another staple for a Caribbean Christmas is sorrel, the dried or fresh flowers of a shrub that is used to make a cranberrylike drink often spiked with alcohol.

In St. Petersburg, Elaine Facey, who grew up Jamaica, makes a sorrel drink that she shares with friends. "To prepare it," she said, "you need ginger. You need rum, sugar."

The seeds are removed from the sorrel, which is then washed and boiled and left to steep for about three days, Facey said. The liquid is then strained and sugar added. Pimento seeds help to keep the drink from fermenting, she said.

"I usually keep it in the refrigerator. Sometimes I have it for about six months," she said.

Ethnic stores don't have the monopoly on foods immigrants and their descendants crave. At Seven Springs Seafood Co. in New Port Richey, owner Paul Johnson is bringing in fresh and smoked eels, fresh calamari, scungilli, Swedish herring, escargot and cuttle fish, chubs, white fish and bacalao.

"People are already placing orders," Johnson said.

Save on Seafood, which has retail stores in Gulfport and Tampa, also is stocking up on similar items as well as whole snapper, gravlax, fresh octopus, bacalao, kippers and smelts.

Gib Migliano said orders for special items must be placed before Dec. 20. "These people that wait for the last minute, they won't get any, because we don't bring any extra," he said.

Live eels will arrive at Save on Seafood from Delaware on Dec. 22. Migliano said shoppers don't have to wait until Christmas Eve to pick them up.

"If you keep them wet, they will stay alive in your refrigerator," he promised. "Put them in wet newspaper and stuff them in a plastic bag."

For the faint of heart, smoked eels will be available.

- Waveney Ann Moore writes about produce and seafood monthly for the Taste section. She can be reached at 727 892-2283 or


6 yeast packets

3 tablespoons sugar

Warm water

21/2 pounds flour

5 eggs, divided

1/2 cup (1 stick) margarine, softened

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons vanilla

2 cups sugar

1 cup SugarTwin

2 cups lukewarm milk

12 ounces raisins

Zest of 2 lemons

Dissolve yeast and 3 tablespoons sugar in 1/2 cup warm water. Let stand for 15 minutes.

In a large bowl, add flour, make a well in the center of the flour, add 4 beaten eggs and, except for raisins, all other ingredients, including yeast mixture. Mix well.

Knead for 15 minutes, add raisins, knead 5 minutes more.

Cover and let rise until doubled in size. Punch down dough, divide into 4 pieces, put into four greased loaf pans. Let rise again.

Before baking, beat remaining egg, gently brush over top. Preheat oven to 350. Bake for 45 minutes.

Makes four loaves.

Source: Violetta Sielchan.

Zucchini Potato Latkes

2 pounds zucchini

2 large potatoes

1 medium onion

3 eggs

1 teaspoon olive oil

3/4 cup matzo meal

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil for frying

Peel zucchini and grate down to the seeds. Discard seeds. Squeeze out the liquid. Peel the potatoes and grate into the zucchini. Once more, blot and squeeze out liquid. (This step keeps the latkes from being watery and falling apart.)

Grate onion and add to zucchini mixture. Add the eggs, oil and matzo meal, starting with 1/2 cup matzo meal and continuing to add more if necessary, until a small amounts holds together in a ball. Season with salt and pepper to taste and blend well.

In a large, heavy frying pan, heat olive oil until very hot. Using a large tablespoon, spoon a round portion of zucchini mixture into the pan and brown on both sides.

Serve hot with sour cream or applesauce.

Makes 18 large latkes (pancakes) to serve 6 to 8.

* You can also add carrots, parsley and dill to this recipe.

- Source: Chaya Korf.

[Last modified December 6, 2005, 10:06:06]

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