Potato vareniki

Written by | Food

I first heard of the Russian restaurant Kachka when I was last in Portland, Oregon on book tour (hi, Powell’s!), when no fewer than a dozen people separately told me I had to go while I was there. A few said it wasn’t just their favorite restaurant in Portland, but their favorite restaurant, period. This made me all the more sad that I didn’t have time to make it happen. My regrets snowballed when I finally dug into the restaurant’s eponymous cookbook last summer. I was no further than the first page — where the confusion as to what is “Russian” food when “food from the former Soviet Union including Russia but also the countries surrounding it like Belarus, Latvia, Ukraine…” would be more accurate is humorously laid out — when I became deeply, emphatically obsessed with all that I’d missed.

The book is a delight on every page; a bit of history, a substantial amount of wry observations, some hilarious guides (how to navigate a Russian grocery store, the rules of the “drunk fest” known as a pyanka, how to “tetris” your zakuski spread, and I will never stop laughing about the day in the life of sauerkraut, kickbacks and all, in the former Soviet Union) and recipes that will make you want to take the vodka bottle from your freezer (or start keeping it there, have I not taught you anything), have a rowdy group of friends over, and cook, eat, and drink until you make plans for next time. I immediately bought another copy for my mother-in-law and a third for a friend. I could go on and on, but then we’d never get to the wild thing that happened last month.

A couple months ago, I received an email from the restaurant’s publicist that Kachka chef Bonnie Frumkin Morales would be in New York to cook a seder at the James Beard House (nbd!) and did I want to get coffee with her? No, I said. I have a better idea. Does she want to come over and cook with me in my small, terrible kitchen, specifically potato vareniki (Polish pierogi’s Ukrainian cousin)? I want to learn how to make them from a pro. Astoundingly, she said yes.

So, let’s talk dumplings. Even if you’re not self-described dumpling fanatic, even if your love language isn’t swaddled bundles of boiled or fried carbs, I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like pelmeni and vareniki — only people that have been unlucky not to have tried them yet. They use the same dough, but pelmeni are generally filled with meat (I have a recipe for Siberian Pelmeni in Smitten Kitchen Every Day); vareniki with vegetables, fruit, or cheese. Vareniki are often a little larger, but I prefer the one-bite-perfection of pelmeni, and make them the same size. Most Russians I know (and the one I’m married to) keep bags of each in their freezer for quick meals, and while they’re often quite good, nothing compares to making them at home. Manufactured dumplings require a dough stiff enough for machines and to hold up to shipping. Homemade doughs are much more tender and delicate. I see you running away, but wait! The dough is mixed and kneaded by hand and requires only a rolling-pin to stretch out — no pasta machines, no machines at all. It’s wildly forgiving. I did a downright sloppy job of sealing mine this week and not one of them tore or leaked.

Back to the visit: After I forced my homemade chocolate croissant attempts (a recipe coming soon, I hope) and storebought coffee on Bonnie and her husband/business partner/road prep cook, Israel Morales, she showed me how to use the pelmenitsa I’d just purchased inexpensively online. Bonnie is a pelmenitsa enthusiast. She considers the mold “a perfection of Soviet design, all angles and efficiency striving towards a utopian future of dumplings for all.” It’s economical (no wasted dough), the 3-cm width is “the perfect bite”, the circular opening in the center of each is “the ideal void” to pack in more filling, and the speed — instead of folding one at a time by hand, you make 37 at a time — is pretty key when your restaurant makes as many as theirs does each day.

Still, a pelmeni mold is not a prerequisite for making Russian dumplings. You could use a potsticker mold, or you can form them by hand, either by folding them into half moons and crimping the edges, or in tortellini-like shapes. I’ll walk you through each. I hope you’ll make them. Even if you think you’re not a dumpling person or that this isn’t carbs-wrapped-in-carbs weather, these will shake every idea you have of dumplings to its core. They’re slippery and light where you’d expect heaviness; uplifting instead of nap-inducing. And the next time you reach for the same old freezer meal and find these instead, you’ll know you’ve won the lottery.

A pathetic sidebar: Because I’m bad at, well, calendars, I hadn’t realized until much later than I should have that Vareniki Day was also Seder Day, the first night of Passover, when I had 17 people coming over for dinner. Maybe you’re thinking, “Cool! You can feed everybody vareniki made by a fancy chef!” I briefly thought this too, then I remembered basically the only rule of Passover — ha! Anyway, it was a wild and fun day but I’m going to schedule my visiting chefs and multi-course dinner party days separately next time, just the same.

Last modified: May 30, 2019