My grandparents on my father’s side came over from Latvia during the end of WWII. My mother’s family is from Sweden. So, I’m straight up Northern European all around. Growing up, people would always ask if I spoke Latin, which is pretty funny considering I’m blond haired with green eyes. So, while historically we’ve gotten our butts kicked a few times here and there, our food has always come out on top. This past holiday season, I got to spend some time making some of my favorite dishes that I grew up with. Most of these recipes are similar to other countries, just better.
I made sausages with traditional brown kraut, Latvian rye bread and piragi, not pierogi, the very distant cousin to those that know the difference. I ran out of time to make my Swedish favorites, maybe if we get snowed in for a few days, I’ll tackle those. The beauty of these dishes is that they are peasant food, simple ingredients but amazing flavors. The recipes are also up for interpretation, my wife’s grandmother’s piragi recipe, has a lot of “ish, measurements: big pinch of this, a small pinch of that, more or less of some things.
For the brown kraut, you start with a half pound of bacon in a medium sized soup pot and render until almost crispy. Add in one sliced medium onion, one stalk celery finely sliced, and one medium carrot shredded and sauté until onions are lightly caramelized. Deglaze with water if needed. Once some color has developed and the veggies have softened, add 1.5t caraway seeds and toast. Add a 16oz. bag of plain sauerkraut that has been well drained, 1-2T apple cider vinegar and a little white or brown sugar. Season with S&P and cook for five minutes to develop some more caramelization. Cover the kraut with just enough cold water to come to the top and cook on low heat for 5-6 hours, checking every half hour or so to make sure that it doesn’t start to dry out. Serve with roast pork, sausages or any other BBQ.
If you’re up for a challenge, you can try to tackle my grandmother’s piragi recipe. Some bread making knowledge is a plus, as the recipe is a little undefined. To make the filling, render one pound of diced bacon and add in 3-4 medium onions diced. Cook until lightly caramelized, and then add in 1-2 tsp. caraway seeds and fresh cracked pepper. Finish with a half-pound of finely diced ham. Keep the bacon fat in the mix and adjust final seasoning, it will make sense later. The filling is better made a day ahead.
The dough starts with 2 sticks of butter and three cups of whole milk. Gently warm in a small pot until all the butter in melted. Next add 1 tsp. lemon zest, 1tsp. ground anise, pinch of salt and ¼ tsp. cardamom, if you like. Allow to steep for 10 min. and then let cool to room temperature. While the milk mixture is cooling, take 1½ T. of yeast and activate with ½ cup warm water and a pinch of sugar. Once the milk mixture has cooled off a little, add in the yeast and start adding AP flour. It will be between 3-4 cups, maybe more. The trick here is to get the dough to come together, but it will still be a wet dough. When properly mixed, it will still be tacky, like focaccia dough. Place in a large bowl, and allow to rise until the dough doubles in size.
Pre-heat the oven to 375 convection, and punch down the dough. To make the piragi, cut the dough into golf ball size pieces, and roll out to about 4in. rounds. Place a tablespoon of bacon filling, making sure to get a little of the bacon fat, in the middle and brush the outer edge with a little egg wash. Fold over and pinch the seam together. Place the pirags, seam side down on a parchment lined sheet tray and brush the top with egg wash. This part’s important, once you have a tray finished, place in a warm part of the kitchen and allow rising again. 20-30 minutes should be enough, but this gives them the light fluffy texture. Once raised, bake until golden brown approx. 15-20min and enjoy. These freeze really well, and are best made in large batches. Reheat in the microwave for 30 seconds if you want them warmed.
What are some of your family’s traditional recipes? Share them here in the comments.