Bites with Becca: Recreating a family favorite

by Rebecca Szkutak / Beacon Staff • September 28, 2016

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Pieroges cooking on the stove.
Pieroges cooking on the stove.
In the Eastern European country of Poland, you’ll find a rich food culture composed heavily of sausage, mushrooms, and potatoes. I grew up in America, but with a purebred Polish father, and I’ve been privy to his family’s food in small doses.
 
Delicious doses, to clarify. Growing up, I remember sitting down for the traditional Wigilia feast every Christmas Eve—a meal of pierogies topped with sos grzyby suszone (a mushroom gravy), Smelts—a small fish eaten whole, Easter tables adorned with kielbasa, and assorted Sunday lunches with homemade galumpkis, stuffed cabbage.
 
I look forward to these rich flavors all year, yet I realized I’ve never tried to make them. I usually grab something less savory for a quick dinner and I figured it was about time to try my hand at some traditional Polish recipes. 
 
To begin this cooking experiment, I decided to speak to an expert on the subject of Polish food. This person was, of course, my grandmother—the most qualified cook on the subject and the matriarch of the Polish side of my family. 
 
Babci, (pronounced bub-she) the OG of making chrusciki cookies for Wigilia and babka breads for tea, gave me the answers and advice I needed. She told me her favorite Polish dish was galumpkis—a mix of a meat (usually ground beef) and rice, wrapped in cabbage and covered with tomato sauce—plus they’re easy to make and they’re a complete, satisfying meal. College students take note. You can also make a few at a time and freeze them—seriously you should be taking this down.
Next, Babci and I, with helpful tips from my Aunt, tackled pierogis, which are little starch pockets filled with, well, more starch in the form of potatoes and cheese or sauerkraut. These nuggets are fried in a generous amount of butter. I know, the dense little dumplings can fill anyone up quickly. If only they were as quick to make.
Pierogis are also my favorite Polish dish, so I figured this would be a great place to start. I even over-ambitiously decided to try the creamy mushroom gravy to top them. “Just like Wigilia,” I thought! 
 
“WRONG,” life said. 
 
I overestimated what Star Market had to offer in terms of Polish ingredients. Turns out, their international aisle is pretty lackluster. When I inquired about Polish or Porcini mushrooms for my gravy the employee looked at me as though I had three heads. Surprise! They didn’t have them, and I walked out of the “ethnic” food aisle filled with boxes of Barilla pasta, defeated. 
 
I almost abandoned ship right then and there—how could I cook the sos grzyby suszone without the basic ingredients? I grabbed other mushrooms I assumed were similar based on the super graphic photos on the can, walked home, and got started. 
 
First, I needed to make the dough, which is a pretty standard pasta base. This was quick and easy and I was feeling like a million bucks. “This is so simple,” I thought as I took the 5 lb bag of potatoes I needed to peel and cook out of the fridge. 
 
After running over to Bed Bath and Beyond to buy a vegetable peeler (which really says something about the lack of vegetables consumed in my apartment, but that’s another story), I sat down to peel. And I sat there, and sat there, and sat there as my roommate kept me company for 40 minutes peeling potatoes. Of course I ended using about 1/16 of these potatoes but I didn’t know that at this point. 
 
With an aching back and a pain in my fingers that I assumed must be some sort of root vegetable induced carpal tunnel, I put the potatoes on the stove for 40 minutes until they were tender enough to be mashed.
 
Then I added spices and the mild cheddar cheese that I shredded on my living room coffee table, since my 4 by 6 ft kitchen’s counters couldn’t contain all of my Polish excellence. 
 
After this, I covered my coffin-sized kitchen with flour—mainly in places it shouldn’t have been—and began to roll out my dough to form my dumplings. I cut each circle out with a short Hornitos glass, rolled them with a pin slightly and filled it with filling. I then curled the dough over into a semicircle and creased up the edges to seal, just like a little Slavic empanada. 
 
This naturally took longer than I thought (notice this reoccurring theme) and I made a sheet of 27 little dough balls. These starch babies were then each quickly cooked in boiling water for 4-5 minutes. 
 
To serve, you have to fry these in a saute pan with butter until they begin to turn golden. 
 
I topped the completed products with sour cream to replace my heartbroken gravy—which I ended up not making because when you’ve been cooking for hours and it then asks you to steep fungi, you know you have hit your limit.
 
As I should have figured in advance, this recipe took three times the length it said it would. Forty minutes—my ass. Try over two and a half hours. Maybe the people on Allrecipes.com have already peeled potatoes in their fridge or pierogi making robots or what have you. 
 
I’d deem this experience successful and I’m already excited to try my next dish! Next up—Senegalese.