Pierogi Day, Ukrainian Style
Plus a few other Eastern European-style dishes for fall
The other day I learned from a friend there’s a pierogi pickup with Ukrainians cooking at an apartment nearby in Jersey City, where I live; she DM’ed me the contact info over Instagram. I emailed on a Monday, and within minutes, I heard back from someone named Zenia, who told me I could choose among three types of pierogies: potato with cheese, sauerkraut, or mushroom, and they’d be ready the next day. (I gather it wasn’t going by vareniki since more Americans know them as pierogies.)
Tuesday arrived, and I parked across the street from the apartment at dusk. The pickup is outside a first-floor window outfitted with a Ring doorbell. I rang the bell, and a man opened the window; his bullmastiff greeted me, ducking his giant head out to survey the sidewalk as he stood on the sill.
We exchanged few words since we didn’t speak a common language; the man pointed to my name in a notebook, where my order was listed. I nodded that it was correct, and handed him cash through the window. He gave me the pierogies in plastic containers marked with a sticker that read “homemade with love,” the time, and my name written in European-style cursive. The pierogies, by the way, were beautiful: small and compact with almost a braid around the half-moon like I’ve only seen with on saltenas or empanadas. They were also very good.
I’ve eaten some pierogies in my day; my grandmother was Ukrainian and there’s no shortage of them up in Buffalo, New York, where my grandparents lived and where my mother grew up. For a couple of years, I went to a Ukrainian elementary school in Ohio, where every Friday was pierogi day — when moms and grandmothers would wear their printed aprons from home and tie up their hair for a volunteer stint cutting onions or boiling pierogies or serving kids a plate with caramelized onions, some fake butter, and a side of sour cream.
Fast forward several decades, when I was living in Pittsburgh, there was a Polish deli in the Strip District where they were sold frozen to-go, or for lunch, served on a lunch tray you’d pick up from a little window near the deli case; it reminded me of a milk bar in Warsaw. I wish I could say they made the pierogies there but when I was reporting for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I learned that they’re made in Chicago and shipped, which — whatever — that was fine, too. Later on, I’d get my fix at a charming, often written-about vegan Polish restaurant called Apteka in the Garfield neighborhood, where, in late summer, they also serve full sunflower heads maybe grilled, before the seeds had formed shells — as well as an ambitious selection of natural wines and Slivovitz.
Back here in Jersey City, my neighborhood is predominantly Dominican. I eat a lot of Southern Italian bakery fare from Rick, my partner. And I recently found a great little taqueria where the owners are from Puebla. The shop rivals my favorite local taco cart, where a family makes al pastor tacos; if you peek inside flames lick the spit as a man slices off pineapple-topped meat, the juices running down.
This is all to say that Jersey City is the most diverse city in the United States, which means there are zillions of ways to explore other cultures by way of its residents. Last year, I wanted to go beyond exploring its international restaurants, so I started volunteering with a refugee nonprofit called Welcome Home, which holds events every week and connects volunteers with families to help them navigate, well, anything: How their kid chooses a high school. Where to learn to swim. How to buy a car seat for a baby. Whether driving schools have instructors who speak Arabic.
Most of the folks I’m aware of who are hooked into Welcome Home (and I admittedly know little) have been in the U.S. for a couple of years, and are from places like Syria, Egypt, and Afghanistan. It seems like it takes a bit before recently arrived people go from the International Rescue Committee to locally-based nonprofits — meaning if there are Ukrainians here, I don’t think they’d be working with the group I work with yet, but I could be wrong. My thoughts turn to the pierogi maker I hadn’t met, the man, and the dog. I wonder how long they’ve been here and if they’re finding footing. And I look forward to another pierogi day, Jersey City-style, sometime soon. I wish I could DM you their info, so you could, too.
In the meantime, here’s a collection of Bittman recipes to build around pierogies, including stuffed cabbage, borscht salad, and chicken Kiev. I hope you enjoy them.
Makes: 24 dumplings, 4 to 6 servings
Time: About 1 hour
About 3 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, chopped
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon minced garlic (optional)
1 cup Mashed Potatoes (see recipe below)
24 round or square dumpling wrappers (to make your own, see recipe below)
1 egg white, lightly beaten
Sour cream for serving
1. Put 1 tablespoon butter in a large deep skillet, preferably nonstick or cast iron, over medium heat and add the onion along with a liberal sprinkle of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion softens, then turns brown. This may take as long as half an hour. It’s okay if the onion gets a bit crisp on the edges, but lower the heat as necessary so it doesn’t cook too fast; basically you want a kind of onion compote.
2. Combine half the onion and the garlic, if you’re using it, with the mashed potatoes, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Set the remaining onions aside. There’s no need to wipe out the pan. Heat the oven to 200°F.
3. Lay a wrapper on a work surface and put 1 to 2 teaspoons of the stuffing in the center of it. Brush the edge of the wrapper with egg white. If you have cut circles, form half-moons; if you have cut squares, form triangles. Press the seam tightly to seal; it’s best if there is no air trapped between the stuffing and wrapper, so press down slightly. Set on a lightly floured plate or wax paper; don’t let the dumplings touch. (At this point, you may cover tightly and refrigerate for up to a day or freeze for a couple of weeks; no need to thaw — they’ll just take a couple extra minutes to cook.)
4. Bring a large pot of water to boil and salt it. Working in batches, in combination with the frying in Step 5, carefully boil the dumplings until just tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer them with a slotted spoon to the skillet.
5. Put the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in the skillet over medium heat. When the butter melts, add as many boiled dumplings as will fit without crowding and brown them quickly, turning once or twice until the dough is tender, about 10 minutes total. When they are done, transfer them to an ovenproof plate and keep them warm in the oven. Cook the remaining dumplings, adding butter to the skillet as needed. When all are cooked, lower the heat a bit and reheat the reserved onions, then spread them out over the dumplings. Serve hot, passing sour cream at the table
Makes: About 50 wrappers
Time: 40 minutes
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon salt
2 egg yolks
1. WITH A FOOD PROCESSOR: Put the flour, salt, and egg yolks in the bowl and add about 1/4 cup cold water gradually through the feed tube while the machine is running; if necessary, add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough forms a ball, then let the machine run for about 15 seconds. Finish the kneading by hand, using as much flour as necessary to keep it from sticking.
BY HAND: Put the flour, salt, and egg yolks in a large bowl and gradually stir in about 1/4 cup cold water, adding more if necessary, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough comes together in a ball. Turn onto a floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes, sprinkling with flour as necessary to prevent sticking.
2. Shape the dough into a ball, dust with flour, and cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Let it rest for 20 minutes to 2 hours. (You can make the dough up to this point, wrap it tightly, and refrigerate for up to a day. Bring to room temperature before proceeding.)
3. Knead the ball for a minute, then cut into 4 pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll each piece into a 1-inch- wide log, then cut into 1-inch pieces and roll each one out from the center to form a 4-inch round or square, adding a bit more flour if necessary. Use immediately or dust with flour, stack, wrap tightly in plastic, and refrigerate for up to a couple of days or freeze for up to 2 weeks.
Makes: 4 servings
Time: About 40 minutes
2 pounds starchy or all-purpose potatoes
1 cup milk or buttermilk, plus more if needed
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Peel the potatoes before cooking if you like. If you’re in a hurry, halve or quarter larger ones. Cut or whole, the idea is to have all the pieces about the same size. Put them in a large, deep pot and cover with cold water. Add a large pinch salt and bring to a boil.
2. Keep the water rolling until the potatoes are done, anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces. The potatoes are done when a skewer or thin-bladed knife inserted into one meets almost no resistance. Drain the potatoes well and let them dry out a bit.
3. While the potatoes are draining, wipe the pot dry and put it back on the stove over medium-low heat. Add the milk and the butter and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. When the butter is almost melted, remove the pot from the heat. Rice the potatoes into the milk mixture, run them through a food mill set over the pot, or add them to the milk mixture and mash with a fork or potato masher. Return the pot to the heat and stir constantly with a wooden spoon to reach the desired consistency, adding more milk if necessary. Taste, adjust the seasoning.
— Recipes from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian
Lamb and Rice Stuffed Cabbage With Tomato Sauce
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
Time: An hour and a half
1 large head Savoy cabbage, separated into leaves
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
3 tablespoons minced garlic
1 medium carrot, shredded
1 medium parsnip, shredded
⅔ to ¾ pound ground lamb
¾ cup short-grain rice
Freshly ground black pepper
One 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
¼ to ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper, or more to taste
1.Bring a large pot of water to boil and salt it. Add the cabbage leaves to the boiling water a few at a time and cook for 30 seconds to one minute, or until they’re just pliable. Carefully remove the leaves from the water with a slotted spoon and transfer to a colander; rinse with cold water. Repeat with the remaining leaves. Gently squeeze the leaves to remove most of the excess water, leaving them just damp enough so they will stick together when rolled.
2. Put 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat; when hot, add half the chopped onion and one tablespoon of the garlic, along with the carrot and the parsnip, and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and transfer to a bowl along with the lamb and rice. Mix until just combined.
3. Wipe the pan, add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and turn the heat to medium-high. When the oil is hot, add the remaining onion and garlic and cook until soft, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, red pepper and a good sprinkling of salt; cook over medium-low heat while you prepare the cabbage leaves.
4. Cut the cabbage leaves in half by running a sharp knife along each side of the stem, removing the stem in the process; trim the top and bottom so you’re left with a large rectangle. Lay a leaf on a work surface with the wide edge facing you. Put a couple tablespoons of the meat mixture in the middle of the leaf, fold in the two sides of the leaf and roll it up as you would a burrito. Repeat with the remaining leaves and filling.
5. Add the cabbage rolls, seam side down, to the pot of sauce. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring the sauce occasionally and adding a tablespoon or two of water if the sauce becomes too thick, until the meat and rice are both fully cooked (cut into a roll to check; the rice should be tender and the meat no longer pink), 30 to 45 minutes. Serve immediately.
— Recipe from The New York Times
Makes: 2 to 4 servings
Time: 15 minutes
1 pound beets
1 shallot, minced
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
¼ cup sour cream
Lemon juice to taste
A chopped hard-boiled egg
1. Peel and grate 1 pound beets.
2. Make a dressing with minced shallot, Dijon mustard, sour cream, lemon juice to taste, and chopped dill.
3. Add shredded cabbage and a chopped hard-boiled egg.
4. Garnish: Parsley.
— Recipe from The New York Times
Makes: 4 servings
Time: About 3 hours, largely unattended
8 tablespoons, or 1 stick of butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves, dill leaves, chives, or a combination, plus more for garnish
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Salt and black pepper to taste
1/4 cup flour
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs
Corn, grapeseed, or other neutral oil for frying
Lemon wedges for serving
1. Mix the butter with the garlic and herbs. Form the mixture into eight 1-inch by 1/2-inch logs. Place on wax paper, cover, and freeze for at least an hour. Meanwhile, put each breast piece between two pieces of wax paper or plastic wrap and pound gently with the bottom of a pot, rolling pin, or the palm of your hand until about a half-inch thick. Cut each in half so you have 8 pieces. Sprinkle each with salt and pepper.
2. When the butter mixture is frozen, place a piece of the frozen butter in the center of each chicken breast. Fold in the sides and roll the chicken tightly around the butter. Make sure the butter is completely enclosed and the chicken is sealed shut.
3. Coat the chicken rolls in the flour, eggs, then bread crumbs. Place on wax paper, cover, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
4. About 30 minutes before you’re ready to eat, put at least 2 inches of oil in a deep, heavy skillet or saucepan and turn the heat to medium-high. When it reaches 350°F, a pinch of flour will sizzle, and the oil will thin and start to shimmer, gently slide in the chicken rolls and cook, turning once or twice, until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Do not overcrowd; work in batches if necessary. Drain on paper towels, garnish, and serve hot, with lemon wedges.
— Recipe from The Best Recipes in the World
Those pierogis and Jersey City sound great! I didn't know it was so extremely diverse, though it makes sense. For a while I went there once a week for flamenco guitar lessons. One of the only active Spanish Roma guitarists in the country lives there, Pedro Cortes. Never had time to poke around the food scene though.
When we went to Kyiv (and Moscow and St. Petersburg) on a music-oriented tour in 2001, they served borscht at one of the meals. I had never tried it before and was hesitant to eat it, but it was delicious.