Yesterday marked the beginning of the 40-day Lenten period, and you know what that means. A heck of a lot of people are going to be supporting their local parishes, fire departments and community groups by attending Friday fish fries.
In Allegheny County alone, Pittsburghers have their choice of more than 70 church basements or social halls in which to enjoy this traditional meatless meal in the weeks leading up to Easter. And the numbers can be huge, both in terms of customers and the money they raise for local causes. Epiphany Catholic Church in Uptown near Consol Energy Center, for instance, can expect to serve at least 400 at each of their Friday dinners, the mainstay of which is a fried or baked fish sandwich or meal.
You'll also find a host of traditional sides on the menu -- from mac-and-cheese and haluski to crispy potato pancakes, homemade pierogies, stewed tomatoes and pizza and spaghetti for non-fish-eaters.
Seeing that Lent runs for more than six weeks, and that your average fish lover can eat only so many french fries or bowls of cabbage and noodles before it gets old, observant Christians and their fellow diners can get, well, bored before Easter rolls around.
You may have to give up meat during Lent, but do you also have to say good-bye to variety?
Depending on how far you're willing to travel, the answer doesn't have to be no.
Some local parishes up the ante by offering less-traditional sides with their fish dinners, and we're not just talking veggie options such as the vegetarian chef salad being offered at St. Catherine of Sweden in Hampton, stir-fried vegetables over long-grain and wild rice at St. Therese of Lisieux in Munhall, or the eggplant sandwich that's on the menu at Madonna del Castello in Swissvale.
Nor is the alt-fish fry built around pasta, though when it comes to creative Italian noodles, nobody does it better than St. Thomas More in Bethel Park. On Fridays through April 11, volunteer cooks will dish up a different speciality pasta each week ($9, with salad, roll and beverage), starting with Friday, March 7's, tortellini with mushroom marsala sauce. You also can look forward to linguini with shrimp and salmon lasagna.
Our Lady of Victory Maronite Catholic Church in Scott, which draws congregants from Pittsburgh's Lebanese community, celebrates its heritage and traditions by offering some favorite tastes from the Eastern Mediterranean. You'll still find standards such as mac-and-cheese in the church's social hall (not everyone is brave, and besides, the kids expect it), but volunteers also prepare tray after tray of mjadra, a pilaf-like dish of lentils cooked with rice, onion and lemon; lubia (green beans in tomato sauce); mousakka; and rishta, a classic Lebanese soup made with noodles and lentil broth.
Sleek, a Middle Eastern side dish made with spinach, lemon and black-eyed peas, is another perennial offering.
"And it's all made fresh that day, in a certified kitchen," says Anne Ayoob, a long-time parishioner who organizes the fish fries. "The health benefits are great." She adds her volunteers are "very good cooks."
Upwards of 150 diners attend the Friday night dinners, which cost $10 with your choice of two sides, or $12 if you want to taste each and every side.
Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in Creighton is another that's proud to go ethnic with its Lenten dinner sides. For years, under the careful watch of The Rev. Miroslaw Stelmaszczyk, who was born and raised in Poland, volunteers made hundreds of Polish krokiety, or croquettes, for the church's fish fries from a recipe he created. They were served with borscht.
Alas, Father Miro was transferred to a parish in Bridgeville last fall, so it will be a croquette-less Lenten season. But diners still will be able to enjoy several other Polish specialties, including meatless stuffed cabbage (made with rice and mushrooms) and pagach, a traditional Slovak pizza stuffed with potato and cheese or sweet cabbage. It's a sweet dough, filled like a doughnut. Other options include portabella bruschetta.
"He taught us so well, but we had to eliminate something this first year" without him, said lifetime member Dee Vidra, who has worked the church's fish fries for years along with more than two dozen volunteers. This year they spent about five weeks making 12,000 of another Polish specialty: Pierogies.
The Irish Catholic Ancient Order of Hibernians, which holds its fries at the Ukrainian-American Citizens Club in Carnegie, pays homage to the homeland by offering Irish nachos made with potatoes instead of tortilla chips.
St. Regis on Parkview Avenue in Oakland has turned the tables completely. Just one Friday during Lent -- March 21 -- is earmarked for fish. The rest are "non-fish" fish-fry dinners featuring homemade meatless Mexican and Latino foods prepared by parishioners. On March 7, for instance, they'll serve spinach, corn or tuna empanadas; chilaquiles, a traditional Mexican dish made with fried corn tortillas and potatoes; and flan. Takeout is available.
Looking for a different spin on the fish part of the fish fry? Search Pittsburgh Catholic's fish-fry guide (pittsburghcatholic.org/fishfry) and you'll find everything from tuna-noodle casserole and shrimp po' boys (St. Joan of Arc) to fish tacos with corn and bean salsa (St. Bernard) to lobster ravioli (Holy Spirit) to Maine lobster roll and pan-seared scallops (St. Mary in Cecil).
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.