Over the past several months, members of St. George Orthodox Church have been spending most Saturdays cooking up the food of the world in preparation for the upcoming International Festival. Hosted by the church at 704 W. Sam Houston in Pharr, the annual event begins at 9 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m. and features their famous Middle Eastern style baklava.
Baklava is a pastry made of many paper-thin sheets of phyllo dough, each layer slathered with butter and filled in the middle with walnuts and spices, before trays are baked to a crispy brown and drizzled with a sweet syrup sauce.
On a recent Saturday morning, about a dozen church members gathered to layer, butter, fill, bake and package a supply of fresh baklava, waiting in the large church freezer for International Festival day. As one of the church’s Lebanese members stated, “People really like the baklava.” She continued, “Some come just for the baklava. A lot of people like to buy if for their Christmas parties. Hopefully this year, we won’t run out.”
St. George Orthodox Church, the only Eastern Orthodox Church in the entire Rio Grande Valley, has been around for over 30 years now, and a festival in one form or other has been an integral part of the church’s life and outreach to the local community. Because it is the only Orthodox church in this region, parishioners backgrounds span the world, including members from Greek, Ukrainian, Lebanese, Romanian, Bulgarian, Russian, Ethiopian, Serbian, Australian, Mexican and Caribbean backgrounds, to name a few. The eclectic cuisine found at the festival is reflective of the diversity parishioner’s backgrounds.
In addition to baklava, other foods which have been prepared for the International Festival include Greek style stuffed grape leaves called Dolmades, both with meat filled and vegetarian. One person who bought some stuffed grape leaves prior to the festival shared, “They were nice and juicy — and tasted just like my mom’s.”
Eastern European stuffed cabbage rolls will also be available, including Polish Golabki, filled with beef and topped by a tangy tomato sauce. The Ukrainian version of cabbage rolls was also cooked up. Called Holubtsi, this style is filled with pork and rice and is covered with a sour cream and dill sauce. A vegetarian Greek style cabbage roll was also created; this one called Lahanodolmathes Orphana.
Made, eaten and called by slightly different names throughout Eastern Europe, Pirogies or Varenniki in Ukraine, were also rolled out and filled at St. George’s one Saturday. The ladies, many from Ukraine, made a potato and cheddar cheese version, as well as one filled with potato and sauerkraut. Boiled in some salted water, with some onions fried in oil spooned on top, this Eastern European comfort food is irresistible.
The parish also prepared a large quantity of Pastitsio — a Greek-style layered pasta dish filled with seasoned meat and cheese and covered with a rich béchamel sauce. Pastitsio will be hot ready to sample by the piece at the festival, or packaged to take home frozen and pop in the oven to savor after the event ends. In addition, lovely phyllo triangles filled with spinach and feta cheese, called Spanikopita, and others filled with potatoes and feta, called Tiropita, will also be available at the Dec. 11 Festival. Some will be ready to buy and eat; others ready to pop in the oven at home. Recently sampled by Judie Geil, Parish Council President and one of the regular pre-festival cooks, she stated, “I don’t even like spinach, but these were really delicious.”
On the day of the International Festival, specialty booths will be spread out over the church grounds. One will feature injera bread and spicy Ethiopian food. Another will share flavorful Ukrainian and Russian specialties.
Yet another will share some of the savor of Greece and the Mediterranean. In addition, a Greek Grill team will be cooking up marinated skewers of Beef Souvlaki, ready to be drizzled with yogurt and cucumber based Greek Tzatziki Sauce. The same winning grill team will be serving up South Texas Fajitas, and local Tex-Mex specialties will be found just next to the grill and pan de campo booths.
If guests want to come, linger, listen to the free music and entertainment and watch the international folk dancers performances, there will be plenty of covered outdoor seating available. Visitors can stop by the Russian Tea & Coffee Shoppe and pick up a cup of steaming Greek, Ethiopian or other gourmet coffee, including lattes made on the spot. Or, if one prefers, Vladimir Blend special Russian tea blend made by Kusmi, the former teamster of Russian Tsars, will also be served piping hot, as well as your choice of gourmet hot chocolates.
To accompany your hot beverage of choice, try a fresh Scottish scone, a fruit muffin or a slice of homemade cake. Homemade candies and International confections will also be sold the Tea & Coffee Shoppe, including several types of fudge, halva, and Turkish delight. Delectable cookies made from recipes from around the world will also be on hand to enjoy at the festival, while pre-packaged cookies, breads and other baked goods will also be available to enjoy later on.
Once again, fragrant bowls of steaming International soups — such as Ukrainian Borscht, New Mexico Green Chile Posole and Middle Eastern Lentil — can be enjoyed on site, or taken home in “to go” containers. These soups can be accompanied by packages of homemade humus, tabouli, pita chips and other specialty foods. St. George’s Pastor, Fr. Antonio Perdomo said, “This year we’ll have even more foods prepared and ready than ever before for people to come and enjoy.” Fr. Perdomo continued, “Now, we’re just praying for some beautiful South Texas weather for that day.”
In addition to a world of food, music and dance, various art, craft and gift vendors will also be sharing their wares. This will include wood carvers, jewelry, fine arts, icons, handcrafted olive oil based soaps, toiletries and a wonderful line of gourmet culinary items, including homemade mustards, herbal flavored vinegars, sugars, honeys and more.
Besides items for sale, the Festival is also designated as a time for giving. The church has operated St. George Food Pantry since 2004. Since that time, it has fed over 50,000 people, including many children, elderly and handicapped individuals. In November, the Food Pantry donated gift cards to provide Thanksgiving Dinner for 150 families in need.
Each year, the International Festival features a “Give a Can; Get a Cookie” Food Drive and Fundraiser for St. George Food Pantry. Guests are encouraged to donate canned goods, staple foods, cash, and also new and lightly used blankets, coats and jackets and toys. As a thank you in return, donors will receive a complimentary home-baked cookie, as well as a sample bag of Green Mountain gourmet coffee.
For more information about the Dec. 11 International Festival, or to pre-order baklava or specialty food items from St. George Orthodox Church, call Fr. Antonio Perdomo at 956-781-6114 or see the Festival webs site information at: www.stgeorgetx.org/festival.