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The Chronicle's European vacation

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By Amanda Mims; Darlene Mann and J.K. Devine

Polish pirogi
With a great deal of excitement, I suggested we choose an ethnic dish for our December recipe tasting. Polish traditions at the holidays have always been important in my family and, living almost 1,000 miles away and not always getting to participate, it was going to be fun to share one of the traditional dishes we served for Christmas Eve dinner for what we call wigilia with the Citrus County Chronicle staff. It is a meatless 13-course meal that cannot begin until the first star shines and, therefore, is also called star supper.

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With thoughts of making homemade pirogi — my favorite Polish dish — reality hit me. Because of the holidays, my deadline for The Pinnacle was moved up a week to the day the recipe was to be made; then the flu bug that’s been going around hit me ... and still lingers.  Plan B.

Quickly searching for a fairly quick and easy recipe but still based around pirogi, I decided to make pirogi pasta casserole using Mrs. T’s pirogi to save time.

The recipe wasn’t meatless; it included Polish kielbasa and bacon, but I didn’t think either the staff or my kitchen companion, Fox, would complain.  

The casserole was assembled the night before. After boiling the pirogi and cooling them with cold water, they were set aside. Then the stuffing mix was prepared and set aside.

In a large skillet, the Polish kielbasa was sautéed until browned. All three ingredients were combined in a large bowl and mixed gently to combine. Only half of the stuffing mix was used, since to me pirogi should be the main attraction and not overpowered by the bread. It is strictly a personal preference. Plus, if you remember from last month, bread stuffing is not really my thing.

The mixture was put in a prepared baking dish, covered and put in the refrigerator.

The next day, I went to the office to put a few finishing touches on The Pinnacle and called my husband about 2 p.m. and asked him to preheat the oven to 400 degrees, take the casserole and crumbled bacon out to get it to room temperature. When oven was preheated, he placed the casserole in the oven to finish baking. Then I walked in the door, topped it with bacon and headed to the Chronicle for tasting.

The dish was good and could be served as a side if you are a heavy eater.

To me, it looked a little drier than pirogi dishes, so a spray of margarine along with a few dollops of sour cream was added. In our house, pirogi always dripped with butter and was then lightly seasoned.

The day was not exactly as planned, but all turned out just fine. So maybe traditions do not have to be ironclad, after all.

— Darlene Mann

Meat-free mushroom soup
I really like mushrooms, especially during the colder months. They have a rich, hearty flavor that goes well in so many dishes. Portobello caps prepared just right make a nice stand-in on occasions traditionally calling for some “meaty” central dish.

I had Portobello gravy at Thanksgiving that was divine.

So when I came across the recipe for Hungarian mushroom soup not too long ago, I made a mental note to try it soon. Then, we decided our December theme would be “European,” and I remembered this recipe, thinking it would be a good fit for this month’s food project.

For once, I wasn’t facing a big stack of recipes to choose from. Bonus!

The soup was easy to make and I was happy with the way it turned out. I made a few tweaks, but I stuck pretty close to the original recipe I found on allrecipes.com. I used a sort of sour cream made of cashews instead of dairy sour cream, but found it didn’t make much of a difference in the flavor. Next time, I’d just omit it.

The most labor-intensive step was cleaning all those mushrooms (I doubled the recipe so I’d have enough). It isn’t easy to step back and forth between the sink and stove when you have two dogs at your feet, hoping you will drop some, which you inevitably do.

On a side note: If you want to inflate your culinary ego, let your dog in the kitchen while you cook (or if you don’t have a dog, borrow the neighbor’s — or better yet, adopt!). One pair of eyes watching your every movement will make you feel like you’re doing something worth paying attention to. Two dogs will make you have a live audience on your own Food Network show.

Moving on.

Let me just wrap it up by saying this American’s Hungarian mushroom soup was a kitchen success. My husband Kevin suggested having some fresh, thick bread to go with it.

The New Year is right around the corner, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay homage to the Southern side of my family and make quick mention of some good-luck foods to have on New Year’s Day. I’m usually subjected to a little good-natured ribbing (no pun intended) for not eating from the holiday spread of greens, black-eyed peas with hog jowl and other traditional foods, because the veggies are laden with ham hocks, bacon or salt pork. I know the teasing is because some are secretly worried I won’t have good health, wealth or any kind of good fortune in the coming year.

But if you’re a veg or just want to cut back on saturated fat, fear not: A lot of these traditional foods are plant-based and can be prepared sans animal. Great news for you, the pigs and your Southern family. See that? Peace on Earth.

* Use light olive oil instead of bacon and ham hocks to get the collard greens started. If you like the traditional smoked-pork flavor in greens, add a very small amount of liquid smoke.

* Find one of countless recipes for meat-free black-eyed peas online. Or just sauté some celery and onion in olive oil, add salt and pepper and cook the peas in water according to the package directions. I prefer to top mine with a copious amount of hot sauce.

* Round out the meal with white rice and cornbread for a prosperous new year.

—Amanda Mims

Hot potato salad
When Darlene suggested cooking ethnic food for our monthly tasting, I thought to myself: How can I cook Mexican or Thai food? I’m still mastering chicken, which is apparently a very easy meat to prepare. But then she said she would make a Polish dish. That opened the possibility to cook a Polish sausage dish, which is a dish my dad likes to cook. So he could show me a dish when he was here for Thanksgiving and I would be all set.

However, dad was feeling under the weather when he was here for the American holiday, so it was on to Plan B. I racked my brain for an alternative and as I was making mashed potatoes one night, it hit me: My mother makes a delicious hot German potato salad. Plus, I have cooked it before, making it the easy choice to serve to my coworkers.

With one quick call to my mom, a quick trip to the farmer’s market for fresh potatoes and an onion and borrowing a crockpot from a coworker — thanks, Cheryl — I was all set to create the hot dish my mom has been known to serve on cold winter nights. Plus, it is a nice alternative to mashed potatoes or when you have an excess of the starchy vegetable on hand.

While I usually try to prep my ingredients the night before our cooking day, I held off because I was in charge of cooking our work Christmas dinner for the copy desk. That meant peeling potatoes — which always takes me longer than most people — chopping onions and frying bacon first thing in the morning. After that was done, I combined the ingredients for the sauce while the potatoes cooked.

But one problem arose. As I was preparing the sauce — which I wanted to be hot and fresh to serve to my co-workers —  I left the potatoes cooking a little too long. Therefore, when it was time to dump the potatoes in the crockpot with the sauce for cooking, it turned into mashed potatoes rather than potato salad.

When I saw this happening, I kept out some potatoes and added them to the sauce immediately and knew it would be closer to the original than the crockpot version. Success seemed imminent.

Turns out it was and it wasn’t. Those who tasted the hot German potato salad liked it, but mentioned it was heavy on the vinegar. I agreed after sampling it myself.

On the flip side, the potatoes in the crockpot had time to cook slowly, and 45 minutes after arriving at work, they were ready to serve. The co-workers who tasted that didn’t mention a vinegary taste. Therefore, my hot and ready-to-serve potato salad was good. But the crockpot version was definitely better.

So as long as you don’t overcook the potatoes where they keep their shape and let them finish cooking in the crockpot, you will have a successful dish. They also make wonderful leftovers, because I found the potato salad was better after spending a day in my fridge and then reheated. Yum!

—J.K. Devine