Honoring My Ancestors: A Polish Buffet for Christmas Eve 2011, Recipe #1 – Pierogi (3 ways)

Jak będzie Wigilia, tak będzie caly rok.
— “As is Wigilia, so is the entire year,” a Polish proverb.

Although my paternal grandparents were immigrants from Poland to the U.S., my brothers and I weren’t raised learning many Polish holiday traditions since my mother came from Dutch and German stock who arrived in this country sometime in the distant past. Still, love of certain foods came down to our generation, along with one of Nana’s recipes. Dad taught our mother how to make the golabki (gwum-kee), stuffed cabbage. Mom even took time to create pierogi “from scratch” once, she told me, but decided she’d never do it again—as soon as a small batch was done, heaped with sautéed onions, they’d disappear into everyone’s tummy with no leftovers to enjoy (too much work, she said!). I made some “scratch” pierogies one year too, at Eastertime, and came away with the same feeling – not likely to happen again, not while there’s Mrs. T’s! As for kielbasa and sauerkraut – well, it’s a given Mom would make that occasionally, but not with the Polish sausage (German roots, plus American familiarity with ’kraut, meant we enjoyed it with hot dogs or pork chops). Kielbasa was for dippin in mustard – a munchie!

So it seemed like a good idea to bring together a Polish feast for Christmas Eve this year, inviting a few family members to share. The main menu included golabki, mashed potatoes (I can’t have golabki without potatoes as a side), pierogi casserole, sauerkraut with turkey kielbasa and carrots, and good marbled rye bread (no, I did not make the bread—no time, energy expired!). I wanted to try baking a delicious-looking Sweet Pecan Kugel recipe from a great blog I subscribe to, Savory Simple, but I ran out of time with all the baking, cooking, shopping, wrapping, decorating the week before. I’m saving that recipe for sometime in the next week or two. Anyway, we had plenty of cookies and candy (those recipes will appear in some of my next posts).

Given my previous ignorance and lack of an ingrained sense of Polish traditions, I hope anyone reading this blogpost who possesses better knowledge of customs in Poland will forgive my completely ignoring, with my holiday buffet, the fact that the customary Polska Night before Christmas consists entirely of meatless fare, including several fish and other meat-free dishes. If you’re Roman Catholic or know anything of RC fasting laws, you understand where the fish thing originated. The Wigilia (vee-GEEL-yah, which means “vigil”) meal celebration itself, also known as the Star Supper, is the heart of Christmas. It begins when the first star appears in the sky, commencing a magical time when it’s believed animals can talk and humans can predict the future. No food can be eaten until each and every family member and guest has broken the oplatki (translated as “angel bread” – a wafer with a Christmas image, such as the Nativity or the Star of Bethlehem, stamped into it) and exchanged wishes for good health, long life and prosperity.

If I’d stuck with the meatless theme, the pierogi casserole could’ve fit into the Wigilia tradition (but only if I left out the bacon, which would’ve been tasty enough too). This recipe originally came from an issue of one of my favorite magazines, Cooking Light, and was called Bacon Pierogi Bake. I’ve made several changes to their recipe, which I guess makes it my own. You can go to the link included in the previous sentence to view the original, but here’s my “take,” in a nutshell:

  • First of all, this recipe makes double the batch in the Cooking Light recipe. I was serving a crowd!
  • I used two kinds of frozen pierogies: potato & onion and potato & cheese.
  • I substituted turkey bacon for the real stuff, but have made it both ways with excellent results. This meant sautéing in a bit of butter and/or oil.
  • My boxed chicken broth preference comes “No Salt Added” – not “lower-sodium.”
  • I added a dash of nutmeg to the sauce (it goes great with cheese).
  • I eliminated the sliced green onions that get added as a topping after the casserole comes out of the oven in favor of sautéed (almost caramelized) onions spread atop the pierogies and sauce, before sprinkling cheddar cheese over it.
  • I opted for less chopped tomato (went for low-end of the ¼ to ½ cup) because I wanted the crunch and nuttiness of toasted pine nuts.
  • I suggest serving with sour cream or Greek yogurt, which adds a few calories (so Cooking Light did not include this as an option).

Let me preface this recipe with an apology about photographs of our Christmas feast: there are none. The photos herewith were taken on the day after Christmas (Boxing Day in many countries), so you’re viewing a plate of leftovers, albeit yummy ones. It was so hectic getting that meal on the table and trying to be sociable with family in between, I forgot to take pictures! But take my word for it—it was a fine setting indeed – and enjoyed by all, with leftovers going home with several (Kristen, George, Aunt Pat…).

MARILYN’S PIEROGI CASSEROLE
Yields about 8 servings (3 each serving)

Ingredients

  • 2 (15-ounce) packages of frozen potato & cheese or potato & onion (or one package of each) pierogies (such as Mrs. T’s)
  • 4 bacon slices (real or turkey bacon – center-cut slices best for the real stuff), chopped
  • 1 tablespoon olive or canola oil, if using turkey bacon
  • 2 large onions, cut in half, then sliced thin
  • 1 tablespoon olive or canola oil, plus 1 pat (tablespoon) of butter
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • ⅔ cup (6 ounces) ⅓-less-fat (Neufchatel) cream cheese (I’ve used full-fat cream cheese too, with good results)
  • 1 cup fat-free, low-sodium (or no-salt-added, which I use) chicken broth
  • dash of nutmeg (fresh-ground preferred)
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • ¼ to ½ cup chopped seeded plum tomatoes (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ⅔ cup pine nuts (less or more, according to preference)
  • sour cream or Greek yogurt for topping (optional)

Process

  1. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Toast the pine nuts: Turn heat to medium under a non-stick frying pan. Do not coat the pan with anything. Arrange pine nuts in a single layer in the pan and cook for about 5-10 minutes, occasionally stirring, until nuts begin to exude a nutty aroma. Remove pan from heat. Set aside.
  3. Coat a large glass or ceramic baking dish with cooking spray. Arrange the pierogies in the baking dish.
  4. Fry the bacon in a saucepan over medium heat until crisp. (If using turkey bacon, you will need to add the olive or canola oil to the pan, just enough to prevent sticking.) Remove from pan to a paper towel-covered dish. Set aside.
  5. In a large frying pan, melt the butter with the oil and add the sliced onions. Sautée on medium to medium-low until almost caramelized. This can cook while you are preparing the rest of the casserole, but keep an eye on it and remove from heat when they begin the browning.
  6. Add minced garlic to drippings in pan (if using turkey bacon and there are few drippings remaining, add another ½ teaspoon of oil or butter). Cook garlic for 30 seconds, stirring constantly.
  7. Add the cream cheese to the pan and cook for 1 minute or until the cheese begins to melt, stirring frequently.
  8. Gradually add chicken broth to pan, stirring with a whisk until smooth.
  9. Add the dash of nutmeg, giving a final stir or two.
  10. Pour cream cheese mixture over the pierogies.
  11. Top evenly with sautéed onions. 
  12. Top, again evenly,with shredded cheddar cheese.
  13. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes or until bubbly and thoroughly heated.
  14. Remove from oven and sprinkle with bacon, tomato (if using), ground pepper and toasted pine nuts.
  15. Serve with sour cream (or Greek yogurt) as an optional, delicious topping

The plate, clockwise from top left: golabki (sliced open), sauerkraut with kielbasa & carrots, pierogi casserole, mashed potatoes.

Pierogi alternative recipe #2:  My original method for doing pierogies (frozen ones) came from Mom. Boil water. Drop them in. When they float to the top, they’re done. Take them out and put into a wide, flat bowl. Meanwhile, “fry” onions on the sides with plenty of butter and some salt and pepper, until well-browned. Dump the fried (sautéed) onions atop the dumplings and serve.

Pierogi alternative recipe #3:  At least a decade ago, our daughter Kristen told us about this now-closed restaurant on Lark Street in Albany where they served pierogies somewhat differently and most delectably. After tasting them, I followed suit with this method – Just like Mom: boil water; drop in; done when they float; into that wide-flat bowl – but keep them warm and moist so they don’t stick to each other since you will be sautéing them in the onion pan. In the meantime, toast pine nuts in a large frying pan; remove them to a small bowl. Then sauté onions in butter in that same pan. Remove them to another bowl. Sauté pierogies in batches in the onion pan, adding a little oil or butter as needed, until they brown and reach desired crispness (some might just like the browning but a little crisp is wonderful). Return to the wide bowl, adding onions and pine nuts as topping. Serve with sour cream. (This version is probably the most calorie-and-fat-packed of all three, plus it involves lots more over-the-stove work with all those pierogies to fry.)

I’m loving the casserole version, having thrown it together for at least three or four meals to date.

Stay tuned for the next recipe… most likely the golabki! And by the way, in the Polish Wigilia fashion, although a little late, let me wish you all good health, long life and prosperity.

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