Perhaps I should backtrack and give you some good explanation for eating Eastern European keep-you-padded-over-the-long-winter-months fare in the stickiest (or so I hope) part of the summer, but I don’t really have one–they just called to me. Plus, a recipe that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle last month suggested that the home cook use wonton wrappers instead of making dough. I had initially poo-pooed this idea–how inauthentic! This will not do!–until my trusted Russian friend, Olga informed me that at home her family made dumplings with wonton wrappers all the time. And I realized that using such a thin, light casing might make the difference between potato pierogis seemed to me the quintessential biting-cold winter dish and something you might eat with a light, crunchy slaw for a summer dinner.
Even better, one you can make and eat in the same evening. What a concept! I mean, it’s all frightfully simple; peel potatoes, boil them for twenty minutes, chop onions and fry them thoroughly in butter (amen), mix, season and get stuffing! You’ll have way more than you need, so go ahead and line them, not touching, on a parchment-lined tray and freeze them until firm, then gather them in a freezer bag until you’re ready to eat the rest. But be sure to set some aside for immediate gratification, either topped with simple minced greens or green onions, more onions browned in butter, just butter, sour cream or vinegar. Now, you’re not supposed to use the last two together, but I cannot resist their sacrilegious pairing. Promise you won’t knock it until you try it, okay?
A bit of background: Pierogi are one of those foods so immersed in diasporal history, I love reading and then blabbing about it. That said, I am also kind of a nerdlet, so you are welcome to skip this part.
In the U.S., we call them pierogi, as I have done here, but be warned that pierogi means different things to different people. The Polish agree that what we call a pierogi is actually that, but the Russian pirogi (also called pirozhki or piroshki) are actually small buns made with a yeast or short dough. What we call pierogi, the Russian would consider vareniki. Ashkenazi Jews call them kreplach, which is their Yiddish name and Lithuanians call them kolduny.
Russian, Latvian, and Ukrainian varieties, with their more bread-like quality, are more likely to contain meat. Polish, Slovak, and Czech versions tend toward more of a pasta dough and are more likely to contain potatoes or cabbage. Lithuanian pierogi are like a bridge between the two, with meat fillings but a noodle-like casing.
It would be naive to think that pierogi are not distant (or not-so-distant) cousins of the world’s other dumpling varieties, from Italian angnolotti and ravioli or Chinese dumplings. In fact, some say that pierogi were introduced to Polish cuisine about 500 years ago by Queen Bonna who was Italian. Marco Polo is said to have brought noodles to Italy after eating them in his 13th Century China travels, though many (mostly Italians, I might add) say this isn’t the case. Thusly, if you are a peacemaker, as I sometimes try to be, no matter who you are talking to, they’re probably a little bit right, even more so if they’re buying the drinks.
Quick Potato Pierogi
Adapted loosely from the San Francisco Chronicle, 6/6/07
Serves 4 to 6
1 1/2 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
4 to 5 tablespoons unsalted butter + a little extra to melt and drizzle over the dumplings (Deb note: I was able to make do with just 2 T butter in a non-stick)
3 onions, finely chopped
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 to 2 packages of gyoza (pot sticker) wrappers
3 to 5 green onions, thinly sliced or 1/4 cup chopped chives or 2 tablespoons chopped parsley or additional fried onions (see note), to serve
Sour cream, melted butter or vinegar to serve
Cook the potatoes in a large pot of salted boiling water until just tender. Drain and set aside.
Melt the butter in a large heavy frying pan and cook the onions until they soften then lightly brown, darkly browned in spots.
Mash the potatoes in a bowl then mix in the onions and their cooking butter. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Using a round cookie or biscuit cutter the width of the smaller side of the dumpling wrapper, cut 10 to 12 wrappers at a time into circles, discarding the extra. Working on at a time, brush the edge of the round wrapper with water and place a spoonful of filling in the center. Fold dumpling in half, pressing the edges together to thoroughly seal.
Place each dumpling on a parchment or waxed paper lined baking sheet and repeat until all filling has been used.
Chill in the refrigerator if you are making them ahead of time. If you wish to freeze the dumplings for later use, make sure they are not touching, then freeze them until solid and later gather them into a freezer bag. This ensures that you will avoid having one mega-pierogi clump when you are ready to cook them.
To cook the pierogi: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the dumplings one at a time, until the surface of the pan is covered with dumplings. Do not overcrowd; you’ll have to work in batches. When they are done, about 2-3 minutes, remove with a slotted spoon.
Transfer to bowls and serve sprinkled with green onions, parsley or chives, drizzled with a little melted butter or vinegar or topped with a deb of sour cream.
Alternatively, you can pan-brown the pierogi. Heat some oil in a heavy frying pan and add dumplings in a single layer. When they are golden and in spots, browned, turn and brown other side. Add enough water to reach about 1/4-1/2 inch in depth. Cover and cook 3-4 minutes; remove lid and check for doneness. When pierogi are tender but not mushy to the tooth, and the liquid is evaporated, they are ready.
Note: To make fried onions, saute 2 to 3 thinly sliced onions, in butter in a heavy frying pan until they are limp and lightly browned; add several tablespoons water and cook until the onions are soft and silky, the liquid mostly evaporated. Season with salt and pepper.