Passionate Pierogi Perceptions

Being an international mutt, I found myself in a conundrum when trying to choose an artifact. Rather surprisingly, noodles and dumplings have made their way around the world. A delicacy that I originally had solely associated with Asian culture turned out to be a product that had maneuvered its way across the world. Myself being mainly of Russian, Italian and Greek descent, there were so many viable noodle and dumpling options to explore. After some serious deliberation, I chose to focus my attention on pierogis. There was a myriad of reasons that led to my selection—partially my familial ties to the dish, somewhat because it too is an ‘international mutt’ of a meal, and mainly since I had not had the privilege of eating the delicacy in years. Pierogi, Periogies, Пероги, Пирожки, and Varenyky are just some of the names associated with this basic dish that progressed from being a poor man’s meal to a national delicacy. Pierogis are Russia’s version of dumplings, but with a delectable twist.

As a first generation American, I was raised in a very traditional Russian household. My childhood consisted mainly of two meals—borscht and pierogi. Hence, I was raised with a surplus of pierogis; whether they were made fresh by my grandmother, bought from the Russian grocery store a town over, or defrosted and smothered in sour cream by my father. However, once I reached the age of eight and began to gain weight at a normal speed my grandmother decided no more pierogi for me. Unlike most grandmothers, she is the type to watch what I eat, put me on a strict diet and force me into the gym. The meal that was my favorite comfort food quickly turned into a type of taboo. My grandmother closed the door to pierogis, I was no longer allowed to swallow them whole. On the other hand, my brother, the ‘manly man,’ could eat as many pierogis as he wanted. He needed the sustenance to grow so he never had to experience the constraints I did. Almost over night, I was restricted from the delicacy I had grown up with. Since my expertise with this dish lies mostly in my childhood, I feel that it is familiar yet out of my comfort zone. Honestly, prior to the Noodles Dinner I had not even indulged in a pierogi dish—sweet or savory—in a couple of years. By choosing pierogis as my artifact I was able to finally indulge, as well as explore something that was such a staple in my childhood.

Similar to my scattered background, pierogis also range depending on the Eastern European region you find them in. They can be found in nations such as Russia, Poland, and Ukraine—each having its own version of the meal. In Poland, pierogis started as a peasant food but then gained popularity and spread through the social classes, even to nobles. The dish goes so far back that the recipe can even be found in cookbooks from the 17th century, meaning it has been a staple of the Polish diet for hundreds of years.[1] Moreover, it turned out that even each holiday or event—such as Christmas, Easter, Weddings, Funerals—in Poland has its own special pierogi created. Now, pierogis are considered a national Polish dish with festivals meant to celebrate it. Ukraine has a different take, and even name, for pierogis. ‘Varenyky’ have been around since the 16th century there, being mentioned in the “Description of Kharkov Viceroyalty,” a report prepared for the Russian government in 1785.[2] Pierogis are not quite important enough to have their own festivals in Ukraine, but a monument to varenyky was inaugurated in Cherkasy in September 2006. The monument shows a Ukrainian folklore hero, Cossack Mamay, eating varenyky from an earthernware pot, with a huge crescent-shaped dumpling behind him. This shows the importance varenyky have not only in the food realm, but also in the cultural (monuments and folklores) space for Ukranians. Russia was the last Eastern European nation to truly accept pierogi as a dish.

“Varenyky became wider known all over Russia after the publication of Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, a collection of tales by Nikolai Gogol, written in 1831-1832, which pictured peasant life in Little Russia and were heavily laced with Ukrainian folklore. In the short story Christmas Eve, varenyky magically popped out of the bowl, splashed into another bowl filled with smetana, turned over on the other side, jumped upward, and flew into the mouth of the village magician Pot-bellied Patsyuk. Due to this scene, varenyky jumping into the mouth became a symbol of gluttony and laziness in Russian and Ukrainian culture.”[3]

Since Russia was the last to welcome this meal, they adopted an updated version and name. The Russian counterpart is called pelʹméni and it is particularly different: smaller, circular and generally filled with raw meat (resembles ravioli). Consequentially, Russians implemented the Ukranian style varenyky as well as creating their own new version. Nevertheless, pieroigis are not native to only these three nations, they can also be found in Slovakia, Romania, Lithuania, and even Canada!

As aforementioned, there are many different names for pierogis. Even the English word pierogi has various versions of the plural: pierogi, pierogies, or pierogis. These all come from the Polish and Russian ‘pierogi,’ the plural form of ‘pierog.’ In Russian letters it is spelled ‘Перог’ and it is the generic term for filled dumplings. Similar to how each Eurasian country has its own version of the dumpling, each Eastern European country has its own pronunciation and name for it. In Russia it is the пирог and in Ukraine it is ‘вареники’ (varenyky), the plural form of ‘вареник’ (varenyk). The name comes from how the pierogis are cooked. Ukrainians cook the dumplings similar to how jam is made—through the boiling process—so the name stems from ‘varenya’ which means jam. Poland’s myriad of names is where it gets confusing, the different spellings can be: pierogi, perogi, perogy, pirohi, piroghi, pirogi, pirogen, pierogy, pirohy, pyrohy.[4] An interesting point is that despite the variations in names, the names are not limited to the countries they originated in. In example, some Russians refer to pierogi as varenyky, but some Ukrainians refer to them as pierogis instead of varenyky. This can get confusing at times because one simple dish has 10+ ways to indicate to it. Luckily, even if you are at a Polish restaurant and ask for varenyky, they will understand that you are talking about pierogis.

Just as there are too many names to count, they are even more deviations of the meal itself. Pierogi can be pan-fried or steamed, sweet or savory, an appetizer or a main, but always delicious. Baked pierogis are also an option, but typically quite rare. I also love that there are different versions of dough to choose from—flaky crust or tender flour. For those who are indecisive, the sweet or savory aspect is a game changer. The savory options consist of a veggie base or a meat selection, but the sweet pierogis are my favorite. Sweet fillings do not limit the dish to be a dessert, they still can be served as an appetizer or main meant to break up the palette during a meal. I can go with a veggie (potato or sauerkraut), meat (ground beef), or sweet (jam and cottage cheese) filling, but almost always a tender dough. However, I never ever eat a pierogi without sour cream, or smetana as us Russians call it—it adds to the texture, taste, and temperature of the dumplings. Some people also accompany the savory versions with sautéed onions/cabbage or the sweet with apple sauce; I stick to sour cream for everything.

As expected, the recipes for pierogis vary depending on the region they are found in. In Poland, they are often filled with “fresh curd cheese, boiled and minced potatoes, and fried onions. This type is called in Polish pierogi ruskie, which literally means “Ruthenian pierogi” (not “Russian”). Ruskie pierogi are probably the most popular kind of pierogi in North America.”[5] In the old days of Ukraine, the ‘pirozhki’ (varenyky) were cooked with a wheat or buckwheat flour crus, stuffed with fresh quark (cheese), and boiled in water. The shape of varenyky varies from crescent to square, but rarely are found in square. They can be stuffed with copious different fillings: mashed potato, ground meat, liver or offal, cabbage, sauerkraut, fish, hard-boiled egg or a combination of these. Typical sweet fillings include cottage cheese or fruits such as sour cherries, berries and currants. Another similarity between the Russian and Ukrainian take on the dish is that they too love to pair it with borscht. Russia being the last nation to welcome this meal has the most variations and combinations—basically anything you can stuff in the dumplings, Russians have already tried. I felt that introducing the class to pierogi would establish a conversation about the different types of dumplings found all over the world and how each culture makes it their own.

pierogi

Even in New York City, there is not one region you can pinpoint that has the ‘original’ pierogi recipe. East Village—where I reside—does have a strong Ukrainian presence, being nicknamed the Ukrainian Quarter. There you can find restaurants like Veselka that offer some true recipes, in addition    to ‘make it your own’ versions. I believe the most authentic Russian pierogis can be found in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. A bit of a hike, but worth the effort. There you can meet the true ‘babushkas’ who make the meal from scratch and have family recipes passed down for generations. When I cooked the dish for our noodles dinner, I used my great grandmother’s recipes. Surprisingly, the women in my family were pretty adamant about keeping the recipes under wraps so instead I incorporated a recipe[6] I found on Huffington Post below:

 

 

INGREDIENTS

For the Dough:

3 and ½ cups flour, plus extra for dustin when you roll the dough out

3 eggs

1 tsp. salt

¼ cup sour cream

¾ to 1 cup water

For the Filling:

5 medium-sized red potatoes

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

¼ of a large yellow onion, chopped

salt and pepper to taste

½ tsp. dried thyme

2 Tbsp. milk (I use skim)

½ cup parmesan cheese, shredded

½ cup fontina cheese, shredded

3-4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, for frying

INSTRUCTIONS

For the Dough:

  1. In a large bowl, mix flour, eggs, salt, and sour cream together. Gradually add water, a few tablespoons at a time, working dough in between each addition. Dough is done when it comes together and feels smooth but not sticky. You probably won’t use all of the water – I use about ¾ cup each time.
  2. Wrap dough in plastic and chill in the fridge for at least thirty minutes while you prepare the filling.
  3. When it’s time to form the pierogis, remove dough from fridge and roll it out approx. ½ cup at a time (to prevent overworking it) on a floured surface until it is about ⅛ thick.
  4. Cut dough into circles with a cookie cutter or a glass turned upside down. I usually make my dough circles about 2.5? in diameter.
  5. Put about ½ tsp. of filling in the center of each dough circle. Fold the top of the circle over the filling and pinch the ends together with your fingertips to seal the pierogi. I like to start pinching the dough together in the center of the pierogi and working my way to the edges – this gives me more control over the edge and lets me make it kind of a scalloped finish (like in the pictures). It takes some practice – don’t give up!
  6. Cook pierogis in boiling water for 4 minutes and then transfer to a SUPER hot skillet with a tiny bit of butter. Fry for about 2 minutes on each side or until they develop a nice, brown, crispy crust.
  7. Top with Sour Cream and Chive sauce. (YUMM-O).

For the Filling:

  1. Slice the potatoes into quarters and put in a large pot. Cover the potatoes with water and bring to a boil. Cook potatoes for about 30 minutes or until they can be easily mashed with a fork or spoon.
  2. Drain the potatoes in a colander. Return the pot to the stove.
  3. Heat olive oil in the pot. Add garlic, onion, salt, pepper, and thyme and saute until onion is translucent, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat.
  4. Return the potatoes to the pot with the garlic/thyme/onion mixture. Add milk to the pot and mash with a potato masher.
  5. Add fontina and parmesan cheeses to potato mixture. Stir the cheese into the potatoes with a spoon or spatula until cheese is melted and potatoes are smooth. Let cool for at least 30 minutes before you form the pierogis (I usually make the potatoes the day before and keep them in the fridge overnight – makes for less work the next day!)
  6. When it’s time to form the pierogis, remove dough from fridge and roll it out approx. ½ cup at a time (to prevent overworking it) on a floured surface until it is about ⅛ thick.
  7. Cut dough into circles with a cookie cutter or a glass turned upside down. I usually make my dough circles about 2.5? in diameter.
  8. Put about ½ tsp. of filling in the center of each dough circle. Fold the top of the circle over the filling and pinch the ends together with your fingertips to seal the pierogi. I like to start pinching the dough together in the center of the pierogi and working my way to the edges – this gives me more control over the edge and lets me make it kind of a scalloped finish (like in the pictures). It takes some practice – don’t give up!
  9. Cook pierogis in boiling water for 4 minutes and then transfer to a SUPER hot skillet with a tiny bit of butter (I recommend melting it in the pan about 1 teaspoon at a time in between each batch of pierogis). Fry for about 2 minutes on each side or until they develop a nice, brown, crispy crust. Be careful not to overcrowd the pot or the skillet – pierogis should have enough room to cook while still being in a single layer so they don’t stick to each other or cook at different speeds.
  10. Top with Sour Cream and Chive sauce. (YUMM-O).

 

I must admit, the highlight of the artifact project was our Noodles Dinner. What began with a somewhat rocky start—phone dying mid trip, leaving me with no address, apartment number or method of contact—turned into a warm and enlightening gathering. We discussed the history of the pierogi, my ancestral ties, and eventually the cultural/political views associated with these Eastern European regions. Over a couple glasses of wine, we were able to dissect the hostility that arises between the nations and how a simple man’s dish could bring even the most opposing of enemies together. I chose to start off the dinner with a savory version, cheese and pan fried being a fan favorite. As per tradition, I paired it with sour cream and sautéed onions. Surprisingly, those who were unaccustomed to the delicacy preferred the sweet version that I served as dessert. It was a boiled dumpling with tender dough, stuffed with sweet potato and spices. This was a Ukrainian recipe rather than a Russian one, something I had been unfamiliar and skeptical about. In the end, everyone loved this as dessert, smothering it with apple sauce and sour cream. All in all, we learned that no matter the name or the recipe or the cultural ties, a dumpling is still a delicious way to gather a group of strangers and turn them into friends.

 

[1] Piszczek, Mrs. “Facts & History About Pierogi.” Enjoy Organic Pierogi From Polska Foods. Polska Foods, n.d. Web. 01 May 2016. http://www.polskafoods.com/polish-food/facts-history-about-pierogi

[2] “Pierogi.” Pierogi. America Pink, n.d. Web. 01 May 2016. <http://america.pink/pierogi_3510767.html>.

[3] “Pierogi.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 01 May 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierogi#Ingredients_and_preparation>.

[4] Piszczek, Mrs. “Facts & History About Pierogi.” Enjoy Organic Pierogi From Polska Foods. Polska Foods, n.d. Web. 01 May 2016. http://www.polskafoods.com/polish-food/facts-history-about-pierogi

[5] “Pierogi.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 01 May 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierogi#Ingredients_and_preparation>.

[6] http://www.lifeasastrawberry.com/potato-and-cheese-pierogis/