Washington Cooks: Recipe for a Lenten meal

For more than two decades, the Epiphany of Our Lord Byzantine Catholic Church in Annandale has put on a series of meatless Lenten dinners in the six weeks before Easter. Parish member Daria Parrell of Fairfax has helped the smoothly run event grow each year.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bighearted and proud of her Eastern European heritage, Daria Parrell is a woman who likes to count her blessings. Among them: her ability to cook for a crowd. At this time of year, that amounts to 60,000 dumplings, 300 gallons of soup and 700 pounds of cabbage.

The Fairfax County substitute teacher and clarinetist for the City of Fairfax Band does not whip that up by herself, of course. For more than two decades, she has led the team of 40 or so volunteers at her Annandale church who prepare and serve thousands of meals during six Fridays of Lenten dinners.

The reasonably priced meals raise money for the parish building fund and for kitchen upkeep. They are meatless, in observance of the penance described in the literature of the Eastern Catholic Church. The belief is that giving up certain foods in the weeks before Easter helps the faithful focus on prayer and avoid overstimulating the senses. In other words, a little deprivation makes the roasted lamb and Easter basket goodies taste that much sweeter.

However, there was no sign of suffering as Parrell surveyed the scene on a recent Friday in the hall of the Epiphany of Our Lord Byzantine Catholic Church. Quart-size containers of warm potato-and-cheese pirohis (pierogis) with onion sauce were packed for 4 p.m. takeout. Steam trays stood ready to receive hot foods from the kitchen, served from 5 to 7 p.m., a time that points parishioners toward the church's weekly Lenten service. Tables with goods for sale -- Slovak and Ukrainian crafts, religious items, holiday candy, packaged meats from northern "Pennslavinia" -- flanked one side of the dining area, which seats 300. On the opposite side, a coffee setup beckoned with rows of thick cake slices, brownies and cookies on small plates.

"People look forward to Lent here," Parrell says. "They feel a sense of belonging. Many who come remember their grandmothers, mothers or aunts who made this food."

They do, and with good reason. Each week of the Lenten dinner effort starts with a shopping list compiled by the cooking crew. John Kuklish, a retired social worker and member of the church's men's club, spends 15 to 20 hours a week filling the order on trips to Restaurant Depot, Costco, BJ's and Safeway. Five 50-pound boxes of cabbage make for some "heavy lifting," he says. Kuklish hauls the ingredients and paper supplies to the church's spotless kitchen, outfitted with a restaurant-size mixer, icemaker and dishwasher, two walk-ins and 10 linear feet of stovetop power.

In the freezer on that recent Friday, boxes labeled "frozen pierogis" were crowding the racks of 724 foot-long nut rolls, a church specialty. (Baked in an all-day marathon on Feb. 20, the $12 rolls sell like hotcakes on the third Friday of every Lenten season and at the annual fall event.) Parrell confirmed the dumplings were handmade -- and outsourced. "We were up to 48,000 last year, and we came down with herniated disks and tennis elbows," she said. "We figured we were going to need 60,000 this year. The ones from Pennsylvania are delicious. And we make everything else."

On Sundays, she preps 75 pounds of onions. On Thursdays, men's club members use some of those onions to compose a slippery-savory cabbage-and-noodle side dish called haluski. After the men are done, Parrell and others start two kinds of soups, 25 gallons each. A specialty of hers is the potato and green bean soup, thickened with an all-purpose Ukrainian roux called zaprashka and with enough sour cream to coat an elephant. The rest of the menu comes together in six hours on Fridays, when individual salads are assembled and cakes are cut. Another battery of men's club members keeps the pots of pirohis bubbling at an even pace.

Health food it's not, but Parrell maintains it is "good for the soul." Salt and pepper are largely omitted to accommodate the dietary needs of the many older churchgoers. Roe Panella, a.k.a. the Pirohi Princess Who Runs the Serving Line, seasons the conversation instead: "We do have a secret stash of garlic powder somewhere on the premises."

Parrell learned about Ukrainian cuisine early on from her mother, Luba Kowalska Terpak; by the time Parrell was 12, she could manage Easter bread and stuffed cabbage, or halupki, on her own. "I cooked with her till she could no longer do it. Then she would come over and help me," Parrell says. At home, she likes to cook meatloaf, chicken soup, stews and chicken breasts, pounded thin, with gravy. Recipes for the Lenten dinners can be found in the parish's 1996 cookbook, "Epiphany's Seasons," which contains several dishes from her extended family.

To ensure that the church kitchen ops would be run right, Parrell took a food service manager's course from the National Registry of Food Safety Professionals. "I could run a similar kitchen anywhere in the country with that," she says, pointing to her certificate posted on the fridge's wide door.

The dinners run without a hitch, tuned to a finer hum every year, with about 400 folks eating or picking up food to go each Friday. The Duda family of Fairfax City and a friend, Theresa Ziemba, are weekly customers, although they worship at St. Leo the Great in Fairfax. "I love these pirohis," 16-year-old Colleen says, an empty plate before her and one hand patting her flat belly. Her mom, Kathy, says the process of making them from scratch is labor-intensive, "so we look forward to this every year."

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