Sunday, May 07, 2006

In Search of Pierogie

The Polish Obsession I Just Can't Shake

If you have been following this blog for a while, by now you figured out that I have a serious obsession with food.

Early on, it was purely taste for me. I loved to eat good food, and lots of it. But later in life, my tastes begin to change (for the better) and my interest in food deepened beyond the sensory perception of a meal or dish.... but to it’s origins. Knowing more about the history, the ingredients, the preparation... the “tradition”.... well, just makes the food taste better.

That said, I have a truly unique background that has been more than enough fuel for my culinary travels... and today, I’d like to chat with you about a food that I have a deep, deep passion for.


Wasn’t expecting that, were you! Yes, I am from South Louisiana, born and raised in Baton Rouge. What you may not have known is that I had a polish grandmother on my Dad’s side (my Grammy) from New Hampshire that could make a pierogie like you’ve never tasted.

Growing up I always looked forward to visits from my Grammy. She was a ball of energy, fun-loving and always on the go. Even though I was twice her size, she could eat like nobody’s business... eat and eat and eat. Not huge amounts... just a constant nibble. She had a undeniable love for food and it showed.

Inevitably during her trips, we’d have a pierogie day... a full day of assembling these little gems, and a full evening of eating them. Now Grammy could make a serious cabbage roll as well as some of the best coffee cake you’ll ever eat... but make no mistake about it, her visits were about the pierogies. She was the pierogie master.

If you haven’t had a pierogie (and no, those nasty frozen things at your grocer don’t count) let me explain. A pierogie is a flat dumpling... half-moon shaped, stuffed with a variety of fillings. The dough is not tough and chewy, but pasta like. They are served one of two ways... boiled and pan fried (some folks deep fry theirs, but yuch... not the way to go). Hardcore pierogie folks tend to go either way... but my way is pan fried in butter until hot and crispy.

These days, you can find pierogies filled with just about anything. The most popular filling is potato, a throwback to the old days in Poland when this was just about the only vegetable you could count on. A mashed potato filling, either plain or with onions. The dish would be likely topped with sauteed onions and served with a dollop of sour cream. You can also find mushroom, spinach, cabbage, kielbasa as well as a dozen dessert types.

My favorite filling is the one my Grammy made... sauerkraut and mushroom. The filling really was kapusta... a mixture of cabbage, kraut and mushrooms, cooked down in bacon grease. Fantastic. For my brother, she’d make a meat filling... also good, but very different.

So if you’re not a pierogie eater, or wondering why you don’t see these little guys everywhere, the answer is really simple. They may be amazing to eat... but they are a pain in the #!^@%$ to make. Having a wife who is also nuts about pierogies, I get talked into making them myself about twice a year... and believe me, I clear my calendar for a day.

First, making pierogies takes patience. The dough must be made from scratch and be just the right texture. The cabbage for the kapusta filling must be first boiled, then cooled, shredded and added to the kraut, mushroom and onion mixture.... which then must cook down, and then cool. When ready, the dough must be rolled thin, and cut into circles to be filled. Once filled and sealed, the pierogies must then be carefully par boiled then removed to cool. At that point, you can place in the fridge, freezer... or go straight to a hot skillet to fry and brown in butter.

Now, a warning. If you haven’t had these, and decide to read further about how to procure your own... they can become extremely addictive. Think Polish crack.

There, you’ve been warned.

In New York, the Polish neighbors of the Lower East Side have pierogies galore. Stores like First Ave. Pierogie and Deli (130 First Ave. btw. 7th and St. Marks) have a huge variety and will package for a train ride home. Of course, stay and eat a dozen there before you leave. Also good are the polish “diners” in this neighborhood, including NEPTUNE, a favorite of mine on 1st Ave. at 12th. Their pierogies are great as well as their borsht, which has won awards. It’s a dive, but the food is cheap and the real deal. Many folks drift to Velselka, the stylish polish outpost on 2nd Ave and 9th, and open 24-hours, their food is terrific.... but the pierogie here is not my style, unless you like them boiled. Their fried variety get thrown into a deep fryer, and this changes the essence entirely.

Pieogies have stormed into the internet, and a few googles can scrape up a few quality joints. My favorite so far is Pierogies Plus, in suburban Pittsburgh. Their kraut and mushroom are excellent, and each is made by hand. Believe me, once you’ve had a sweet polish lady stuff your pierogies, you’ll never consider eating store bought again.

You can find them here: .

There you have it. In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing my own recipe, something I’ve never done. If you can’t wait until then, hit one of the links above... you won’t be disappointed!