I was the typical latch-key kid when I was growing up. My parents divorced when I was three, so I spent most of my childhood with a length of blue yarn dangling around my neck that held my key to the front door of our house.
I spent the holidays being shuttled in between my mom’s house in central New Jersey and my father’s apartment in the northern part of the state. The holiday routine meant I’d have dinner with my mom, stepfather and other family members early in the afternoon, usually around one or so. Then my dad would pick me up about three and we’d drive to wherever it was the second holiday dinner of the day was going to be.was being held. Sometimes it was my paternal grandmother’s house or her stepsister’s-daughter-in-law.
Yeah, I know. I used to get very confused, too.
I ate a lot on holidays. Even as a kid I loved and appreciated good food and it was always great fun to have two holiday meals. I jokingly call myself an “Eastern European mutt”, but both of my grandmothers came over from Poland. There was always lots of roasted pork and ham, gawumpki (stuffed cabbage rolls), kielbasa and kapusta (Polish sauerkraut), kishka (blood sausage). Soup with duck blood (yep) for Easter at my babchi’s, kruschiki (deep-fried pastry cookies with confectioner’s sugar) for snacking at the other’s. And babka for breakfast or anytime, really.
And pierogi. Pierogi are, of course, the pockets of boiled or fried (or both) dough, usually filled with potatoes and cheese or wild mushrooms and sauerkraut or other tasty things. They’re delicious and wonderful and people of Polish descent (yours truly included) have been known to stuff themselves silly with them.
In fact, I’d have these for dinner a lot more than I do if it weren’t for two things: the frozen ones are just plain, flat-out awful and they’re a bit of a bother to make from scratch. Okay, they’re a huge bother to make. First you make the dough and then the filling. Then you roll and cut out the dough, fill the pierogi, boil and/or fry them. Then you finally get to eat them.
It’s a lot of work and it’s no wonder that it’s a group activity for some families, some of who crank out hundreds of these babies. And having made these from scratch a few times I can honestly tell you that, unlike big cooking projects that tell you “it’s not as big as a project as it seems”, well. I’ll tell you upfront it is a huge deal and that you’re probably better off finding an Eastern European shop or deli in your area that makes their own and buying them there.
So a few years ago, my mom and her boyfriend went to the Christmas party at the local VFW and she came back raving about something called “pierogi stuffed shells”. “It’s a pierogi without the work!” and she went on (and on and on) about these pasta shells stuffed with mashed potatoes and cheese and topped with sautéed onions in butter. She even bought a plate back with her for me to try. They were good. Not “homemade pierogi” good, but really tasty. I thought the filling was lacking, but I loved the idea.
I made them a few times and tinkered with the potato and cheese filling. More butter, less butter, less milk, more cream, Cheddar, sour cream, smoked Gouda. The traditional cheese to put into pierogies (despite what Mrs. T. puts into hers) is farmer cheese or dry curd cottage cheese, neither of which seems to be made any longer. I When I decided to make these last weekend for the Super Bowl, I thought that goat cheese might be a reasonably good substitute for The Cheese That No Longer Exists.
I was right.
So, here’s the recipe for them. I don’t have exact measurements, only approximations, so you’ll have to make a few judgement calls. They’re little carb bombs, but they’re great for family gatherings since you can make them ahead of time.
Pierogi Stuffed Shells (makes about 24)
- Unsalted butter, about 1 ½ cups worth
- Chopped onions, about 3 or 4 large ones
- 1 box of stuffing shells (I used Barilla). Cook the whole box because some of them might be broken and some will stick to the bottom of the pot and some will rip and…
- About 1 – 1 ½ lbs. of starchy potatoes (baking potatoes will do nicely), peeled and diced.
- Splash of milk or cream
- Dried thyme
- 2 – 4 ounces of a soft goat cheese, something not too…goaty. A mild chevre should do it. If you don’t like goat cheese, try a really mild Monterey Jack.
- Freshly chopped parsley
- Lots of salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Melt 2 sticks of the butter in a sauté pan over a medium head and add the onions. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and cook over a low heat until they’re golden and almost caramelized, about 20 to 25 minutes or so. Don’t burn them.
- Cook the pasta shells in boiling salted water until they’re not even al dente, about 7 minutes or so. Don’t overcook these, or they’ll be really hard to stuff. Besides, they’re going to cook in the oven. When they’re done, drain them and place them on a sheet of foil so they don’t stick together.
- Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water until they’re done. Drain them, add some butter, a splash of cream, salt and pepper (a good amount of both), a healthy pinch of dried thyme and mash until smooth. Stir in the cheese and about 1/3 of the sautéed onions. Taste to see if they need anything else. When you’re happy with the filling, stir in the parsley and set it aside. Try not to eat it all.
- Very lightly oil a 9 x 13 baking dish. Fill each shell with a heaping soup spoon of the filling and start lining them up in the baking dish. You should end up with around 24 shells.
- Spoon the rest of the sautéed onions over the shells. If you’re making them ahead of time, cover the baking dish with foil and put it in the fridge until you’re ready to bake them.
- When you’re ready to bake them, preheat the oven to 375°. Bake them, covered, for about 30 minutes or so. Take the foil off and give them about another 15 more.
- And, done. Serve with rye or pumpernickel bread with butter and applesauce. Salad would be good, so would pickled beets. Kapusta, too.