h e r i t a g e p r o j e c t PIEROGI

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My grandmother was not the warmest of women. She could be harsh and aloof and we did not share a close relationship; in fact, I barely knew her. She was extremely private, a trait I always attributed to her growing-up in Ukraine and Germany between two world wars. She was hard.  Not quick to smile. She seemed to shoulder a great anger that could never be let go.

 Her cheeks were soft- she smelled like onions gently browning in butter.

I wish I’d known her better- that we’d shared some kindred granddaughter-grandmother relationship that was unique to just us; that I could never lose; but I guess that’s somebody else’s story, not mine.

 

Alwina, my grandmother, was a cook. She worked in the kitchens at UC Davis for the majority of her adult life, helping my grandfather support their seven kids. She and my grandfather had a little side catering business, mostly for the local Polish and German communities, cooking traditional foods from their home countries. She loved to cook. I believe that it was the only thing that brought true joy to her life. She enjoyed feeding people. My first culinary memories are with her, with her food: potatoes, browned onions, and butter. I still dream about her pierogi. Holidays at “The Grandparents” (how we called them in my family) were serious business. Alwina turned her kitchen and dining area into a mini restaurant, with blush-colored table linens (it was the 80’s), carnations in small porcelain vases, and a dazzling and generous silver buffet line with sausages, sauerkraut, potatoes, and pierogi- my very favorite. Grandfather would tend bar- root beer in a small stein for me- vodka and beer for everyone else. There was always a game on in the TV Room and there was almost always polka music in the kitchen. When I look back on these memories, especially after having worked as a cook for over 10 years and knowing how much work goes into creating a meal like that, I can’t help but see her in a new light; her harsh edges that always made her so distant and intimidating start to soften. I recognize a common thread between us- our love for feeding people. Maybe that was her gift to me and I never even saw it.

As I turn my memories over and look at them, not with the eyes of the child I was, but as the woman I’ve become, I think that I understand her a little bit better. I think that cooking for her family may have been the only way she knew how to show us, “I love you”.

 

 I was very deeply touched by a panel of chefs at this year’s Cherry Bomb Magazine’s San Francisco Jubilee. Chef Preeti  Mistry gave an impassioned talk about cultural appropriation and it really struck a chord. For as long as I can remember, I have been inspired by foods from different cultures. From my travels, I adopt new flavors and bring them into my daily cooking without thinking that there are chefs in the world who could view that as disrespectful. Her talk got me thinking more about my own culinary heritage and how there is so much that I don’t know. My culinary story is jumbled, to say the least, and I want to attempt to sort through it. For now, I’m calling this series, “heritage project”- we’ll see where it takes us.

 

A L W I N A ' S  P O T A T O  P I E R O G I

I n g r e d I e n t s

1 egg, beaten
½ tsp salt
1 c water
3 c self-rising flour (OR 3 c APF: 1 Tbs + ½ tsp Baking Powder: 1 tsp Salt)

1 large russet potato, peeled, cut into large dice, boiled, and passed through the ricer or food mill
1 yolk
1 Tbs butter
½ Tbs salt

6 Tbs butter
1 onion, small dice

 

M e t h o d

To make the dough:

  1. Combine egg, water, and salt
  2. Add flour and knead (or run in your mixer with the dough hook) until a smooth ball is formed
  3.  Roll out the dough to 1/8” thick and cut 3” circles

For the filling:

  1. Combine riced potato, yolk, 1 Tbs butter, and salt
  2. Place 1 tsp of the potato filling just off-center
  3. Fold the dough over to form half-circles, seal tightly by pinching between your fingers or with the tines of a fork
  4. Set aside on a well-floured sheet pan

For the garnish:

  1.  Slowly brown the diced onion in butter over low- medium low heat on the stove top. You will need to stir every few minutes to prevent burning. 20-30 minutes

Cooking the pierogi:

  1. In a large pot of boiling water, add the pierogi one at a time and cook 8-10 minutes
  2. Remove with a slotted spoon and serve with the browned onions sprinkled generously over the top