It's that time of year...
In all the flurry of Christmas planning, you won't want to forget to buy your main dish early. There's a good reason for this, which I will explain. Polish Christmas is mostly celebrated on Wigilia, or Christmas Eve. It has been a time of fasting, which ends with a feast, which is supposed to begin when the first star appears in the sky. Traditionally, the meal includes 12 courses, one of which is usually fish, and that fish is usually carp. The Polish word for carp is karp (and you thought Polish was a difficult language!).
Carp are bottom-feeders and refuse-eaters. Catch one and kill it to eat immediately, and it will probably taste exactly like that--mud and refuse. In order to make the taste less unappealing (I myself have difficulty believing it can be improved all the way to "tasty"), you can keep the carp alive in clean water for a couple of weeks, until it has been purged of its impurities, and is, presumably, fit for human consumption.
If you are wondering where a Polish family, living in a tiny flat, keeps a live carp for two weeks, I will be happy to explain: in the bathtub, of course!
I am not making this up. Kids find this a fun and pleasant part of Christmas preparations, just like decorating a tree or singing carols might be elsehwere. Some of my children's friends, not long ago, mentioned how much they were anticipating their yearly fish pet.
I went shopping Saturday morning, and at my (large, Western-style) grocery store, a very large bin, filled with live carp, had been installed next to the usual fish counter. There was a line. You get to point out the one you want, and the lucky store clerk gets to catch it for you. I saw him holding up one live fish after another for inspection. It's still early, so there is plenty of time to get your fish, and the lines aren't too long, yet. I have seen "carp lines" that ran into the hundreds of people. I have also seen these little fish-pools full of live carp at outdoor markets.
Here's a billboard that's up right now, advertising live carp for sale at the very store I mentioned. Don't you just want to run right out and get one for Christmas this year?
In case you do, here's a traditional recipe:
Carp in Aspic
(Karp w Galarecie)
3 lbs. carp 1 T gelatin
4 cups vegetable stock 2 T water
4 peppercorns 1 egg white
3 bay leaves
Clean fish. Remove head and clean it. Cook head and spices in vegetable stock for half hour. Strain. Place whole fish in a pan. Cover with strained stock and simmer for half hour until tender. Remove fish and place on a serving platter. To clarify stock, add slightly beaten egg white and bring to boiling point, stirring lightly. Strain through napkin twice. Dissolve gelatin in water, add stock. Pour over the cooled fish. Garnish with carrot rings, hard boiled eggs, and lemon slices.
If you decide to go for it, do let me know how it tastes.