Monday, December 11, 2017

Baltic Christmas Day 11 - A Beginner's Guide to Galerts

Today on Day 11 presenting Andrejs, a galerts-making rookie, with the goal of making this staple of the Latvian holiday table feasible to cook for each and every one of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas readers!

Galerts is a traditional Latvian meat-in-aspic dish, and is also known as head cheese or meat jelly. The Estonian version, sült, is made from pork using its gelatinous parts (although beef, poultry, and fish variants also are available). It is a traditional Christmas dish, but is sold in stores year-round. The Lithuanian variant, košeliena (deriving from košė (pulp or squash) or šaltiena (deriving from šalta, "cold", and refers to way of serving the dish), is usually made from pig's feet; sometimes part of the head is added.

Without further ado, Andrejs with his ‘beginner's guide to galerts’!!!

As most folks who are part of a small ethnic community know, being an observer or bystander at community events is usually not an option - one is expected to participate. Be that as it may, since my wife and I had just moved to Minneapolis from New York City, where we both had spent ten years in various roles in the Latvian community, I had promised my wife Anna that we would take a break from Latvian activity. However, I should have known better - one does not simply and easily step back from Latvian engagements! Within 48 hours of moving to Minneapolis a member of the Latvian "Ladies' Auxiliary" group (those who prepare all the delicious food and desserts at Latvian events), Larisa, reached out and asked me to prepare a traditional galerts for the Church Christmas bazaar. My qualifications for this task were that Larisa (a good friend of mine), remembered the one and only other time I had prepared the dish for a Latvian Christmas party fifteen years ago. Worse, I had done it as a joke, thinking it would be funny to bring galerts to an event where everyone else would bring cookies and other baked goods. Why is galerts funny? Because it is basically a cold meat Jell-O. I believe it follows the grand tradition of taking what each culture's forefathers did to either preserve food or use whatever protein was in abundance at the time (like with escargot, lobster, or lutefisk), and centuries later, declaring them delicacies.

As a Latvian kid, galerts was the bane of my existence. Visiting my grandparents was great, but I always dreaded that galerts might be served for dinner. Worse, the condiments for galerts are vinegar and horseradish - not exactly kid-friendly. I am not alone in this experience - to this day Anna refuses to eat galerts.

As an adult, I thought I had escaped being force-fed galerts. But I am also cursed by the desire to try new and different foods at restaurants. At one restaurant, I noticed "Pork in Aspic" on a menu. Intrigued, I asked the server what aspic is. He hesitated, and just said, "it''s...aspic". Rather than taking the hesitancy as a sign to move on, I took it as a challenge and ordered it, looking forward to trying something new. When our meals arrived, however, I was dejected - instead of finding an interesting new dish at a fancy New York City restaurant, I had just ordered myself a big ol' plate of galerts.

But back to the task at hand. When duty calls, duty calls. Considering this galerts would be my first contribution to our new Latvian community, I knew that I couldn't wing it as I had that first time 15 years ago, so I reached out to the Latvian cuisine expert - Anna's and Liene's mother, my mother-in-law (she teaches Latvian cuisine at the Chicago Latvian School, so I knew she could help me). While she was able to provide a few recipes, the Latvian cuisine expert pointed me toward the Latvian cuisine oracle - Anna's and Liene's grandmother. I was excited to achieve galerts enlightenment from the oracle, but as we all know from Greek Mythology, advice from oracles tends to be vague and subject to interpretation. Anna's grandmother said "Andrej, I do not follow a recipe for galerts, I simply make it". After expressing my hesitation, she took pity on me, and was able to find a recipe that she had once shared years ago with someone else seeking seeking galerts enlightenment. She also left me with a final piece of oracle advice: to use the recipe as a guide, but to make it my own. So with that, I give you my beginner's guide to galerts. But be sure to make it your own!

Recipe: Latvian galerts

1. Buy at least a couple of pounds of on-the bone uncooked meat - better to have too much than to realize you have too little. Remember that you'll be discarding the bones. I used ham hocks and pork ribs, but you could use beef ribs, lamb chops, or even rabbit.

2. Place meat in a large pan and barely cover with water (you want the eventual bone broth to be as rich as possible, so don't add any more water than needed to cover the meat). Add some bay leaves and whole peppercorns, as well as some veggies: carrots, onions, celery, or whatever you think would taste good. To be honest, I cheated a bit and added a couple of bouillon cubes as well. No one will be the wiser.

3. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer on low for a couple of hours until the meat is falling off the bone.

4. Set aside some of the meat to dredge through BBQ sauce for dinner later. Your spouse will thank you.

5. Separate the meat from the bone, compost the bones, and refrigerate the meat.

6. Remove the veggies, bay leaves, etc. from the broth (or just strain it). Refrigerate the broth overnight.

7. Once the meat is cool enough, chop into small pieces - the smaller the better. If you have a meat grinder, even better (this is called "Musician's galerts", and as Anna's and Liene's father says, you can't even taste the musicians).

8. When the broth cools, the fat should settle on top - while fat in warm dishes is delicious, it is the enemy of a good galerts, which is served cold. Push the fat on the surface of the broth to one side and remove as much as possible. Hopefully you can stick a plastic utensil in the broth and have it stand up on its own - if so, success! If not, I reveal a cheater's solution in the next step.

9. Reheat the broth so that it is warm and can be poured. I add a packet or two of gelatin just in case - just don't tell anyone. Be careful not to add too much gelatin - a very firm galerts does not taste good.

10. As the broth heats, find smallish bowls that you can fill to the rim (no larger than ones you would eat cereal out of). Rinse the bowls with cold water (I don't know what rinsing the bowls with cold water does, but I do not question the oracle).

11. Place the meat in the bowls (densely, but do not pack the bowl with meat - leave some space for the broth to hold it all together). If you want to get fancy and add some color to your galerts, you can first place thinly sliced, cooked carrots at the bottom of the bowl and then cover them with the meat.

12. Pour the warm broth into the bowls. Fill to the rim. Place the bowls in the fridge and refrigerate overnight.

13. When ready to serve, run a knife around the inside edge of the bowl to separate the galerts from the bowl a bit. Place your serving plate on top of the bowl and flip over, landing the galerts upside down onto the plate. Give the bowl a gentle shake if the galerts doesn't release the first time. Garnish with greens or anything else that gives a splash of color. Serve with mustard, vinegar, and horseradish.

Following this recipe, I had a 50% success rate, but my failure was just from an attempt to make a vegan version, because why should vegans be let off the hook, right? I used tofu and "agar agar" in place of gelatin, which came out inedible and went directly into the compost bin.

'Vegan' galerts...
On the day of the bazaar, I was a bit nervous presenting my amateur galerts to the Ladies' Auxiliary members who have been running these events for literally decades. Luckily, my galerts was received with guarded approval, and two members even started arguing over it:

Left-brained Ladies' Auxiliary member: "So how should we slice it?"
Right-brained Ladies' Auxiliary member: "Slice it? But it is so beautiful!"
Left-brained Ladies' Auxiliary member: "Then how do you expect people to EAT it?"

The real judges, of course, would be those who have to taste it, and these folks take their ethnic Latvian food seriously. At the appointed time, people were lined up out of the hall and up three flights of stairs. I felt even more pressure when I realized that I was not the only person invited to make galerts, and my galerts was put at a disadvantage by being placed behind my competition on the banquet table. But as folks filed through, nearly everything was scooped up, and there was nothing left of my or my competition's galerts.

Anna and I were also able to get our annual quota of other Latvian foods like sauerkraut, black-eyed peas, pīrāgi, pan-fried pork-chops, and of course, the galerts (though Anna still refused to taste it). I had finally gotten over my childhood dread of galerts and enjoyed this year's portion. But for now, I'll leave the galerts eating to the true connoisseurs - maybe I'll try making it again in another 15 years or so... 

Thank you Andrejs, for this wonderful guide to making galerts! Since you won’t be making it again for another 15 years, it’s safe to visit during the holidays, right? (I share in Anna’s mistrust of the dish!!)

That’s all for today, and please join us again tomorrow on Day 12 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas for Baltic mittens


  1. If you ever have any leftover galerts (not me!) It make a quick and delicious base for many soups. Cabbage, pea or bean soup all benefit from pork bone broth.

  2. I didn't touch galerts for many years - until I made some myself and found out there is nothing "icky" about it! I do prefer the "muzikantu gaļa" - musician's meat - which my mother reminded me that my grandmother called "kopķēzis"!

  3. I've always loved galerts...although I never knew the name till today! And to find the recipe is a huge bonus! I am a purebred Latvian although born in TO. My tastebuds are old. LOL. Paldies for this; LOVE to have discovered it.

  4. I love galerts, always have...Christmas at my mom's wouldn't have been complete w/o galerts....and my brother always called it pork jello..he hated it........we served it with dollops o mustard and vinegar....absolutely wonderful.....:)


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