Thursday, March 27, 2014

I never said I knew how to make pierogies

About once a month, a group of brave individuals gathers in my kitchen for what I loosely call "Cooking Class."  We are very informal about everything, with folks jumping in to dice onions, cook rice, wash dishes or assemble a salad, sitting, standing, visiting and taking breaks when ever they want.  We proceed at a very relaxed pace, stopping in between courses to enjoy eating, talking and sipping wine before jumping into the next project.  There is plenty of gaiety (I'm thinking of last summer's pickling class, where everything that could get cut up and pickled, did) and frolic (the Thai cooking class in which our only male guest took to a whole coconut with a hammer, a cleaver and great gusto).

This past fall, we attempted Polish cuisine.  That decision was made for two reasons: I'm Polish (the only cultural heritage I proudly claim and identify with) and I have a friend who has Polish friends, a mother and son pair whom she contacted.  They both attended and turned our little gathering into a charming little Polish restaurant for the afternoon.  R and G, as I'll call them, brought expertise that I could not have hoped to have produced on my own.

And they also brought with them their big personalities.  R & G transformed a somewhat sedate and studious atmosphere into gales of laughter with their sense of humor and wisecracks.  And I hope they will be frequent guests at The Voluptuous Table from now on.

It all started innocently enough: with a Polish Apple Pie Cocktail (recipe here; take care to buy the very best Polish vodka you can, it makes a difference) and Polish fresh mushroom soup (made from this recipe).  R & G arrived a bit late; they had another obligation to attend to.  But once they arrived, they immediately got a cocktail in hand and things began to rock and roll.

ZU Vodka
G, who had suggested beef tartare because "all the best restaurants in Poland will have Befszytk Tartarski on their menus," waxed eloquent about the charms of Polish-style tartare, using grand arm gestures and a booming narrative.  He very competently overtook trimming and breaking down a piece of tenderloin, mincing it finely and expertly in the food processor, then preparing all the accompanying condiments with care and precision.  A surprising ingredient that G requested was Maggi seasoning, instead of the traditional Worcestershire sauce.  Because I'm that kind of food hoarder, I have both (and more!) in my pantry.  Another interesting accompaniment to Polish beef tartare that G introduced was minced dill pickle.  It's delightfully different and, along with the capers, onion, fresh parsley and egg yolk, a lovely addition.  I wish I had a picture of the beautiful individual presentations G made for us, but I think we were all so hungry by this point (and pretty fuzzy from the Polish Apple Pie Cocktails) that we just dug in.

Meanwhile, R blessedly took over the pierogi-making operation, while two other participants tackled two different kinds of fillings.  R was a literal pierogi machine, cranking out about 6 dozen in very little time.  She asked for two tea towels, extra flour, a rolling pin and a small glass.  These things I could easily produce.  Then came the litmus test of my Polish heritage: did I have a noodle board?  

"A noodle board?  Uh, no...but I have these wooden cutting boards," I pointed to my (I think) rather impressive display.

R snorted at me and said in her throaty, heavily-accented voice, "And you call yourself a Polish girl?  What kind of Polish girl doesn't have a noodle board?"  

I laughed and said, "Looks like your cocktail is running low...can I get you another?"  Apparently, mixing cocktails was my chief talent this afternoon.  R declined my offer, stating that she wanted to keep her wits sharp.  Apparently, she declined another mostly because I think she was really enjoying checking me in to The Smack-Down Motel of Warsaw.  "We'll keep the noodle boards ready for ya."

There was definitely more Polish heritage-vetting to come because R's next question was about making the pierogi dough.  I replied that I had already pre-mixed the dough that morning and that it was in the fridge.  

"Let's see it."  She demanded.  I produced my dough.  She poked it around, moaned, then looked at me.

"What's dis?" she asked.  I stammered, replying that the dough was made from a recipe from an authentic Polish cookbook of my mother's.  I showed her the cookbook and pointed to the recipe.

"Oh my god. You put all of that in here?" she asked, incredulous.  "What, you try to make lazy pierogi?"

I giggled nervously. First I'm not Polish enough and now she's calling me lazy?  I later found out that there is a version of pierogi called Lazy Pierogies that are made like large dumplings rather than filled ravioli.  We laughed about that later (after a lot of wine), but for now, I was quickly losing my Polish heritage cred. I wasn't sure that I could tolerate being stripped of my cultural identity and have my culinary skills challenged, all in one afternoon.

"Well, I couldn't tell from the recipe what to add when.  It's very badly written and I haven't seen my mother or grandmother make pierogi dough in years," I tried to defend myself, but I could tell by the look of pity in R's eyes that I had disappointed her.  In truth (and in my feeble defense), the recipes in many of these kinds of regional cookbooks are very confusing and difficult to follow.  R was having none of it.

"I need to fix.  Give me flour."  And away she went, flouring down the countertop after making sure it was clean enough to work on, throwing my inferior pierogi dough down on the counter with a THWACK, flouring the dough and the rolling pin, and working the dough until it met her approval.  But just barely.  

Not our pierogies, but ours looked just like this.  Photo credit:
We had prepared two fillings: potato and cheese and sauteed mushrooms with sauerkraut.  The potato and cheese pierogies were gently sauteed in plenty of butter and onion; the mushroom/sauerkraut pierogies were served with melted butter and sour cream.  I had lekvar and extra sour cream on the side, two accompaniments that were always on our table when my mother and grandmother served pierogies.  We also enjoyed Polish creamed spinach and finished our very long, very enjoyable meal with a Polish apple cake, which is dense, rich and clove-scented.  That apple cake seemed to be the one thing that met with R's approval, even though she told me she put cinnamon in hers.  OK, I can take it now.

But we continued to laugh and talk, and this small group of unlikely-to-come-together people stayed well past dark, sitting on the outdoor patio in front of a crackling fire set against the chilly fall evening, sipping coffee, eating dessert and then enjoying more wine and after dinner drinks.  It was a lovely evening.  And the best part?  I still feel Polish.

You can find links to the recipes below:

A better pierogi dough recipe than I had access to originally:

For savory fillings:  AND (this recipe also has a decent dough procedure)

For a berry filling (delicious for dessert):

Make your own lekvar if you can't find it at Fiesta Market:

For the Polish spinach:  (we topped ours with Panko and broiled briefly to toast)

For the Polish apple cake:


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