I didn’t go home to Manitoba for Christmas this year, which meant I missed the traditional Ukrainian Christmas Eve dinner and the time spent playing board games in Baba’s basement. In an attempt to reproduce that in Vancouver, Emily and I hosted her family for a Ukrainian Christmas Eve dinner. Ukrainian Christmas Eve dinner is traditionally a 12-course “vegetarian” meal (which includes fish), but we had the additional complication of making it vegan and gluten-free.
Our menu for the evening included:
- Holubtsi (cabbage rolls)
- Mushroom Gravy
- Pickled Garlic Scapes
- Maple Glazed Salmon
- White Beans
- Baked Apples
Notably absent from the list are kutya and bread. Kutya is the traditional first course – a cold, watery porridge made from whole grain wheat, honey, and poppy seed. I couldn’t think of a way to replace wheat and honey and still have it taste like kutya, so we skipped it. And besides normally I’m the only one who enjoys it. As for the bread, we could have bought gluten-free, vegan bread, but bread is just a filler anyway.
We started making food for our dinner two weeks before Christmas. Borscht was the first dish we tackled. Borscht is a beet soup, rich in veggies, and really easy to make vegan. For my borscht, I used beets (including some candied beets that looked pretty when chopped but indistinguishable when cooked), potatoes, cabbage, carrots, green beans, onions, garlic, and spices. The two tricks I’ve learned for making great borscht: 1) Don’t shred the vegetables. Cut them into cubes or match sticks. It is time consuming, but they’ll taste better in the soup. 2) Use a combination of broth and V8 as the soup base. The V8 adds a lot of flavour. This year, I also experimented with apple cider vinegar, instead of white vinegar, but I didn’t notice a taste difference.
The second dish Emily and I prepared ahead of time was the perogies. This was the biggest challenge in our gluten-free, vegan meal. Making perogies without white flour, eggs, and butter was difficult, but not impossible. We used a flour blend with rice, potato, and sorghum flours, and ground flax to replace the eggs. We adapted this recipe, which was good but called for too much water. For the filling we mashed potatoes, yams, garlic and onion together. The yams added a nice orange colour, simulating the cheese wiz that so many people use – the irony of simulating a vegetable for fake cheese is not lost on me.
The hardest part was getting the dough consistency right, so that it was sticky enough to hold together, but not too sticky that it stuck to your fingers. After we got the hang of things, we made 3 dozen perogies, froze them, and then boiled them on Christmas Eve. They were pretty good. They tasted a bit drier and chewier then traditional perogies, with a slight flax taste, but still recognizable as perogy. We served them with fried onions and vegan sour cream.
The last dish we prepared ahead of time was the holubtsi (cabbage rolls). In my mind, cabbage rolls are the most intimidating dish to make from scratch, and I was content to just buy them, but Emily was sure that they wouldn’t be vegan (probably having butter). So we made them from scratch, and they turned out to be easier than the perogies. The key was prepping the cabbage so that the leaves were easy to handle, by first freezing and then boiling the cabbage. We followed this recipe, but we only needed a single head of cabbage with the full recipe’s worth of filling and sauce. The only addition I made was adding chickpeas to the filling, to give our meal some more protein.
On the day of Christmas Eve, we made a mushroom gravy with morels, a mashed bean dish with lots of garlic (recipe), fried up a veggie “salmon” with a maple glaze (this was the only dish that wasn’t gluten-free), and served sauerkraut (because nothing says “family time” like eating loads of cabbage), pickled garlic scapes, and a salad. Salads aren’t traditional, mostly because in the old days Ukrainians didn’t have any fresh leafy vegetables at Christmas time, but we do.
For desert, we took some liberties and transformed the normal fruit compote (stewed dried fruit) into baked apples. We cored the apples and filled them with walnuts, dried fruit, and candied ginger and poured a maple syrup sauce on them (adapted from this recipe), then served it with winter apple cider, chocolate, and coconut ice cream.
In the end, dinner turned out to be amazing. We were 2 dishes short for a traditional Ukrainian Christmas Even dinner, but still too much food for only 6 people. The borscht, cabbage rolls, mushroom gravy, and baked apples were the biggest hits, but all of the dishes were tasty. After dinner, we sat around, played crokinole, and sang Christmas carols.
After we had planned out our meal, Emily found a Vegan Ukrainian Christmas Guide on veg.ca that has some good recipes.