Pierogi with Potato, Leek and Spinach Filling

One of the most satisfying cooking achievements is striking an item off my culinary “bucket list.” I started my running list a couple of years ago as a way to challenge myself in the kitchen, and my late-night Pinterest surfing (which, unfortunately, coincides with midlife insomnia) is making it longer. Occasionally, I might see a Pinterest recipe I want to try as it is, but more often, I see something that inspires me in a different direction. Either way, you don’t have to be good at math to recognize that my habit (plus my imagination) can only grow the bucket list, so moving an item over to the “made it” column feels like a major accomplishment. Today’s dish has been on the bucket list for at least a year. It’s time!

These pierogi—yes, that is the plural—will be coming up again in rapid rotation, because they were delicious and filling, but also easier to make than I expected. In the big picture of comfort foods, these Polish dumplings are about as far as you can go—tender dough stuffed with potatoes, onions, vegetables or whatever else you like, then boiled and fried in a skillet. With butter! What’s not to love? The arrival of fall seems like the perfect time to tackle them, too. The challenge for me in trying a classic dish for the first time is choosing which recipe to use, and that’s what I’m really sharing today.

An internet search for “best pierogi” will yield at least two pages worth of results that declare to be the original, the best, the most authentic, etc. One person’s “perfect” pierogi dough will fully contradict the next, and here’s the deal on that—everyone had a grandma, and everyone’s grandma made dishes that were “original” for their family, and so that was the best for them. But my grandma was Scandinavian, so how do I know from a cultural standpoint what is truly authentic—at least when it comes to pierogi?

Simple—I research it.

I dig deeper to learn where a dish comes from, who were the people who created it, what was their life and what foods were common to their everyday diet. All of these background notes help me arrive at my own approach to the dish. The central and eastern Europeans who created this dish were likely Jewish peasants, and so they would have used simple, inexpensive ingredients. Over time, the dish caught on with other classes, and sweet, fruit-filled versions evolved, but I’ve decided to keep them savory for my first run-through.

Next, I consult trusted recipe resources, whether that is cookbooks I already own or internet sites such as AllRecipes.com that provide multiple recipes for a particular food. I do not select a single recipe and give it a go. Rather, I look for commonality among the recipes, and then I trust my own cooking instinct as I dive in to create it.

I’ve trusted this book, The Gefilte Manifesto, for the dough portion of the pierogi recipe, primarily because their ingredients and technique are very similar to Italian pasta dough, which is in my wheelhouse so I have a bit of confidence going into this. I’ll save the cream cheese-based dough for another time. For the filling, I followed early tradition and made a potato-cheese-onion mixture. And I’ve added sauteed fresh spinach because my half-Polish, all-Jewish husband (whose family, unfortunately, never made him pierogi) can’t get enough of it, so I always have spinach on hand.

Here we go!


Dough Ingredients

(adapted from The Gefilte Manifesto)

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup spelt flour

1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

2 eggs

3 Tbsp. warm water

The original recipe made a very large batch of pierogi, and in hindsight, I wish I had gone that way because they turned out so delicious. But I halved the ingredients, as I often do when I make something for the first time. The original used only AP flour (which I never follow on anything), so I’ve adjusted for some whole spelt flour so that we can have some amount of whole grain. The original recipe said 3 eggs, but chickens don’t lay eggs in halves, so I used 2 and cut back on the suggested amount of water. I suppose I could’ve whisked three eggs together and divvied out half by weight, but that seemed overkill, and the eggs add richness and protein. I followed my instinct and made the dough the same way I make pasta dough but with less kneading, and set it aside to rest while I made the filling.

Unlike pasta dough, this pierogi dough was only kneaded enough to be fully mixed.

Filling Ingredients

4 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and boiled until fork-tender

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 leek, white and light green parts, split lengthwise and sliced thin

2 handfuls fresh baby spinach

1/3 cup small curd cottage cheese

1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

2 oz. finely shredded white cheddar cheese

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

For frying (optional): 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, 2 sprigs fresh thyme leaves.

Some of the suggested filling recipes I considered mentioned addition of an egg, but I didn’t feel this was important, given that the Yukon gold potatoes already had a creamy quality. I decided the cheddar and cottage cheeses provided enough binder. I put the mixture in the fridge to chill while I rolled and cut the dough into circles.


Putting it all together

Rolling out the dough proved more time consuming than I expected, given that I hadn’t kneaded it much. It was surprisingly strong, which means gluten strands had formed during the rest time. Again, I followed my instinct from experience with pasta, and covered the dough a few minutes to relax those strands, then continued rolling, until the dough was about 1/8” thickness. I did this in two batches.

All the recipes I found suggested cutting about 3 1/2” circles, and the only thing I had that size was a little ice cream bowl. Note to self: buy a biscuit cutter already!

On to the fun part—shaping the pierogi! I spooned about 1 1/2 teaspoons of filling mixture onto the center of each dough round, then I dipped a finger into a small dish of water and wet the outer edge of the rounds to help seal the dough. This is important, because a good seal prevents the filling seeping out during boiling. Anything oily along the edge of the dough will cause the edges to separate, so I was also careful to keep the filling right in the center of the rounds as I closed them. I cupped the dough round in one palm, and used my other hand to seal the edges tight, stretching the dough as needed to fully envelop the filling. Once the rounds were sealed up into half moon shapes, I crimped the edges with a floured fork and let them rest while the water came to boil.


Boiling and Pan-frying

As with pasta water, I used a generous amount of salt. Don’t skimp on this out of fear of sodium—remember that most of the salt will stay in the water, and the pierogi (like pasta) will take up just enough to season it well. Various recipes I’d seen suggested that the dumplings would initially sink but eventually float, and I followed the recommendation to cook them about 4 minutes from the float stage. They cooked at a gentle boil, just above a simmer. I scooped them out onto parchment paper, and though they could have been served exactly like that, I pressed on with the pan frying to give them some extra texture—and, of course, the browned butter. 😊

This half-batch of pierogi fed us for dinner twice, and I ended up with enough leftover to freeze for later. I laid the (un-boiled) individual dumplings out on a parchment-lined sheet, covered loosely with another sheet of parchment and frozen overnight, then I transferred them to a zip top bag for cooking later.

Ready for a quick weeknight meal later this fall! Boil them straight from the freezer.

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These turned out so comforting and delicious, I wish I had made them sooner, but I’m glad to get them off my bucket list! 🙂 Here is a sampling of my remaining “someday” recipes, and I hope that sharing this glimpse with you will give me the accountability I need to get cooking:

Porchetta (an Italian specialty made with pork belly wrapped around pork tenderloin)
Why I haven’t made it: It looks fussy and complicated, and that scares me a little.

Black-and-white cookies (one of Les’s favorite NYC classic treats)
Why I haven’t made them: He loves them so much, I’m worried I’ll mess them up (crazy, I know).

Barbacoa (slow cooked spicy beef, which I love, thanks to Chipotle chain)
Why I haven’t made it: I’m committed to only using grass-fed beef in my recipes, and our city doesn’t have the best options for grass-fed, so I need to venture out to a market in a nearby city.

Hold me to it, dear friends! Those dishes deserve a shot in my kitchen. What foods are on your bucket list, either to cook or just to try?


Easy Hash Brown Waffles

As with art, music and just about everything else in life, appreciation of food is subjective. When I learned recently that September is “Better Breakfast Month,” I wasn’t sure what to make of it. “Better” can mean any number of things—qualitative and quantitative. At our house, we are always aiming for our version of a better breakfast in that we actually sit down and eat the meal. Together. At the table. It’s a terrific concept, and we’re committed to keeping that going!

We have a few favorite breakfasts in regular rotation, the most common of them being what we lovingly refer to as “Jewish Boy Breakfast,” or JBB, as I like to call it on my menu planning spreadsheet (yes, I’m really that nerdy). This morning meal is the namesake of my darling husband, Les, who is Jewish and raised in New York, the best city in the world for Jewish food. A typical JBB at our house looks like this:

You can’t take the NYC out of the boy. Les loves his bagels!

It’s a whole wheat everything bagel, topped with spreadable scallion cream cheese, thin slices of red onion, capers (on mine, anyway) and lox. We are lucky to have a reliable source of fresh-daily bagels in our city, otherwise I would have to bake them myself (which I’ve done exactly twice, and wow, what a project). The cream cheese is a homemade schmear that’s super easy to make yourself (check out that link above), and we are forever on the lookout for a sale on lox, because this salty cold-smoked salmon can get pricey.

In case you’re wondering, there is in fact a side of bacon on the plate—which clearly is not part of a balanced Jewish breakfast. I never said he was devout.

JBB has a special role in our love story as well. During our courtship, I straddled the fence about getting serious with Les, following too much drama and heartbreak in my own past. About eight months in, we had a huge snowstorm (in North Carolina, that means more than two inches of snow at once), and though he had been willing to run a bunch of random errands in such conditions, he declined my invitation to dinner. Better to “play it safe,” he said, given the weather and all. In response, I decided to play it safe by being hurt, and I went to bed feeling sorry for myself. Next morning, I was awakened by a text from Les—“why aren’t you answering your door?” I hadn’t heard him knocking, but there he stood—in the middle of a blizzard, people!—sporting a hat with flaps that covered his ears, and holding a bag of fresh bagels plus all the proper accoutrements. The man had risked his very life to be with me. OK, not exactly—but he had shown me (again) that he was different and dependable, so I married him. ❤ And I do love a JBB.

Anyway, when the weekend comes, we like to go big on breakfast. And by big, I mean with preparation of things that are too fussy for a busy out-the-door weekday morning. One of our go-to “better breakfast” menu items? These ultra-crispy, fun and flavorful hash brown waffles. Let’s just savor this image for a moment. Lean in to your screen and try to smell them.

I love those little bits of pepper and onion glistening under the crispy, cheesy potato shreds.

They emerge from the waffle iron crackling crisp on the outside, hot and soft on the inside, and they’re perfectly customizable, based on our craving du jour. This is how we use up all assortments of leftover cheese, onion and pepper scraps, and they come together in short order because I take a rare shortcut in the form of this:

You won’t often see me tout a ready-made grocery product like this one, but these are such a time saver, I can’t help myself.

I hope you aren’t disappointed to learn that I don’t actually make every single thing from scratch. Though I’ve considered shredding fresh potatoes myself for these, I’ve learned that once in a while is often enough to make an exception. These pre-shredded potatoes are such a worthy exception, and they can be found in any well-stocked supermarket. I only wish someone would explain to me why they are always in the dairy section. (hmm)

Here’s how they happen, and obviously, you will need a waffle iron to try them at home. I recommend a standard square or round waffle maker rather than Belgian style, but if you try it in a Belgian maker, please do let me know how it comes out for you, OK?

As the photo conveys, we lean toward the crispy side of things at our house, but you could certainly cut the time a bit shorter and remove them when they are just golden and lightly crisp. You’re the boss of your own kitchen. I’m enjoying the heck out of them in this crunchy state because we’ve recently decided to give up potato chips, our latest bad habit that was wrecking our waistlines. Enjoy them any way you’d normally serve breakfast potatoes, or make them the main dish as we do, topped with a runny egg!

I love the contrast of crispy edges with the soft potato inside. Now, THIS is a better breakfast!

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, they are also a terrific menu option the next time you’re in the mood for “breakfast for dinner.”

Go on, make them. 🙂


Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil

1/2 bag Simply Potatoes shredded hash browns

1/2 cup (give or take) diced onion

1/2 bell pepper (or poblano or jalapeno, you decide)

1/4 cup diced and cooked leftover ham, sausage, bacon (optional)

Approximately 3/4 cup shredded melting cheese (cheddar, swiss, Monterey jack, gouda, etc.)

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 tsp. ground cumin (this is excellent with any fried potatoes)


Instructions

  1. Preheat waffle iron to 400° F.
  2. Place a small skillet over medium heat. Add a generous swirl of olive oil to the pan, and sauté the onions and peppers until they are softened and lightly browned. If you are adding breakfast meat that is not yet cooked, go ahead and toss that into the pan as well. Season to taste, stir in cumin and remove from heat.
  3. Combine shredded hash browns, onion mixture and shredded cheese and stir well to evenly blend the ingredients.
  4. Drizzle in about 1 tablespoon of additional olive oil and stir to combine. I’ve learned from all my experimentation with this recipe that the extra oil goes above and beyond to deliver my hash brown waffles with the crispiest possible exterior. Thank goodness olive oil is a “healthy” fat!
  5. When waffle maker is preheated, pile the hash brown mixture evenly over the plate and press to close the iron lid. Leave it alone for about 10 minutes, and carefully raise the lid to check their doneness. I’ve learned that if the waffle iron doesn’t release right away, whatever I’m waffling needs more time. The food will release when it’s ready, and for my Cuisinart waffle maker, 13 is the lucky number.
  6. Carefully remove the waffle sheet, in one piece, to a platter or cutting board and cut into serving pieces.
  7. Serve as desired, but may I recommend again the runny egg? It’s so, so good. 🙂

A little Frank’s red hot sauce for kick. And I might have broken off a crispy piece for dipping into the egg yolk. Yes, I believe I did.

This recipe will make five waffles, each about 4 x 6 inches. We make four at once for breakfast, then we fight over the fifth during kitchen cleanup. I love our life!

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