Ukraine, u-went, u-ate

On Thursday, our friend Jason joined us to tuck into some hearty Ukrainian food. While the menu featured items that could be described as simple or rustic (which they were) they were not particularly simple to make. They were tasty, though, which is ultimately what counts.

Ukrainian food, as Wikipedia informs me, is a blend of items native to the Ukraine, but with elements from Russia, Poland, Turkey, Hungary, and Germany. This is rather obvious when you consider the history of the Ukraine (which you can consider here if you’d like). Even if you knew very little about the rather tumultuous history of Eastern Europe, it would have been easy to guess at these influences just by taking a peek at popular Ukrainian dishes, many of which greatly overlapped with Russian recipes I reviewed while picking our Russian menu. This ended up working to my advantage in one way though – vareniki/varenyky. More familiar to me as pierogi (which is the Polish term), these dumplings are a popular dish in the Ukraine and one that I had been hoping to make during this project.

I think my favorite fact about vareniki is that the word itself, per Wikipedia, means “boiled thing.” Which is basically what they are, of course, but more on that later.

In addition to the vareniki, I was hoping to make some kind of meat dish. My search for all things Ukrainian eventually led me to the website, Natasha’s Kitchen, where I found several Ukrainian recipes, including:

Vareniki with Potatoes and Cheese (and the recipe for the dough)
Beef Stuffed Peppers

Let’s start with the vareniki.

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Of the two dishes, the vareniki were more technically complicated to make and took more time. They weren’t hard, per se, but mine definitely showed the touch of an amateur. I did have some help though:

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A few notes about the recipes I’ve linked to above. It was really difficult for me to tell how much food I was making. The vareniki recipe says that it makes 8 servings, but doesn’t say what a serving is. Likewise, the dough recipe says it makes 12 servings. I was cooking for three people so just went ahead and made the recipes in full. It made a lot of food in general, but not evenly. So, I ended up with quite a bit more potato than dough. This was partly because my original vareniki shaping technique (using this tool) ended up leaving a lot of excess dough (which, once rolled out in the flour was really too over-worked to be rolled out again). In all, I ended up trying out three different shaping techniques – using the fancy tool, rolling balls of dough in logs and then cutting them into slices which were then rolled into circles (as the recipe instructs) and rolling out the dough until flat, then using a biscuit cutter to shape the dough. The last technique worked best. Once the circles were filled with about a tablespoon of the mashed potatoes, I pinched them together and then scalloped the edges with a fork. This made the most uniform dumplings with the least amount of waste.

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In all, I got about 30 vareniki from this recipe, with at least 2 cups of mashed potatoes left over. The vareniki went into the freezer. I had started them in the morning with the (correct) assumption that it would be too much work to do these right before dinner. When I was ready to cook, I pulled out about half and left the rest for another day. This worked out pretty well.

In addition to the difficulties with the portions, I have another slight critique – the recipe instructs you to let the dough “rise” for an hour, at room temperature. However, much like pie crust, this dough doesn’t have yeast. It doesn’t really rise. What it needed was to chill in the fridge for an hour. Since it came out warm, this made it more difficult to roll out, as it was too springy and sticky. I made it work, but if I did it again, I’d definitely give it some time to cool down.

Onto the peppers:

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These were less technically difficult than the vareniki, but still did have quite a few steps, so give yourself adequate prep time. The recipe makes enough for 10 – I ended up making just four peppers (and we still had one leftover). Instead of using Mrs. Dash as a spice, I used the actual spices in Mrs. Dash. Additionally, I used my immersion blender to smooth out the sauce (it had chunks of tomato in it), since I like my sauces more like sauce than stew. Otherwise, I generally followed the recipe as instructed.

While making the peppers, I caramelized a pan of onions to the top the vareniki with. I cannot emphasize how much you should do this. Caramelized onions take time (at least 45 minutes if you want to do it correctly) but they are so worth the effort. About 20 minutes before the peppers were supposed to come out of the oven, I set a pot of water to boil. After a three minute bath in the boiling water, the vareniki went into a sauté pan with the onions and some butter for about a minute.

In general, I think the meal was successful. The peppers were especially good (if extremely tender which made getting them out of the pot intact rather difficult) and the vareniki tasted like vareniki should – a little bland perhaps (no salt in the dough or the mash – definitely something I’d adjust next time) – but satisfying. Either could be a meal on their own (the peppers especially), but I thought the combination was nice.

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