Back in the late 1970s, the parish I grew up in commissioned a family photo book. Every St. Catherine of Alexandria family was invited to show up at the school at an appointed time to have their portrait taken by a professional photographer.
When my family arrived, we were hustled into a makeshift photo studio set up in an empty classroom and posed by the photographer in front of a screen. Apparently, we were too dour, so he tried to lighten things up by making us laugh.
“How many Polish people does it take to ….”
My father stopped him right there. “A word of warning,” he said, channelling his best Dirty Harry. “You probably don’t want to be telling Polish jokes in this parish, pal. It’s mostly Polish people.”
The photographer promptly shut up and snapped the picture.
It’s easy to take for granted how engrained Polish culture is in our community. Although we weren’t Polish — the McCulloughs are most definitely Irish — there are neighborhoods and even entire towns around my house where some of the signs on businesses and storefronts are in both English and Polish — and the rest are in just Polish.
Enter any number of stores around here and it’s like walking into a business in downtown Krakow or Warsaw. All the products are imported from Poland, Polish is the spoken language, and all the signs and prices are in Polish.
When I was a younger man, I married a Polish girl. My daughter is half-Polish. One of my favorite memories from that marriage was when my ex-wife’s relatives would come over to our apartment laden with bags and boxes of wonderful, steaming Polish foods they had just bought from stores on Milwaukee Avenue, the heart of Chicago’s Polish community.
Like corned beef for the Irish or pasta for the Italians, if it’s not the national dish, pierogi is at least the food that best represents the cultural identity of Chicago Poles. Pierogi from various Polish delicatesans are compared, contrasted and debated as if they were United Nations resolutions rather than stuffed dumplings.
Everybody has their favorite place for pierogi, and they are willing to argue vehemently for hours as to why their choice is the best.
And that’s just the beginning of the debate. There’s the various stuffings to consider: Potato, sauerkraut, cheese, fruit and an infinite variety of others. And the personalized topping preferences: Sour cream, applesauce, browned butter.
Frozen Pierogi are sold in every grocery store in Chicago, but it would be scandalous to serve them. Not when there are so many excellent places to buy handmade pierogi. That would sort of be like serving frozen pizza to somebody from Chicago. It’s simply not done.
An even better option is to make your own pierogi. They are supremely simple to make and the end result is fresher and often even better than anything you can buy.
Pierogi can be stuffed with anything, making them perfect for burning out leftovers. They freeze really well, so you can make a big batch and throw them in the freezer, taking out only a few at a time as you need them.
Here’s my simple, quick pierogi recipe. Although by no means authentic — my first marriage didn’t last long enough for me to be admitted to that secret society — it is a reasonable facsimile.
At least for an Irishman.
2 cups Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/2 tsp Salt
1 large Egg
1/2 cup Sour Cream
1/4 cup Unsalted Butter, room temperature
1. To make the dough, in a medium mixing bowl, mix together the flour and salt. Add the egg to the flour and stir together with a fork. The dough will be quite clumpy at this stage. Work in the sour cream and soft butter until the dough comes together in a slightly rough, slightly sticky ball. Using just your fingertips, knead and fold the dough without adding additional flour until the dough becomes less sticky but still quite moist. Wrap the dough well in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 to 60 minutes, or up to 48 hours.
2. You can fill your pierogi with whatever you like. I used leftover mashed sweet potato that had been mixed with a little butter, salt and pepper. Fill the pierogi by rolling half the dough 1/8″ thick. Use a 2″ round cutter — I actually used an inverted drinking glass — to cut circles of dough. Repeat with the other half of the dough. Save the scraps: These can be snipped into small pieces and added to simmering soups.
3. Place 2 tsp of filling on each round of dough. Gently fold the dough over, forming a pocket around the filling. Pinch the edges of the pierogi to seal, then seal again with the tines of a fork.
4. Fill a large stockpot with salted water and bring to a boil. Drop about 10 pierogi at a time into the pot so they have room to float without sticking. When the pierogi float after about 10 minutes, they’re done. Remove them to side plate. Once they are cooled, you can tranfer them to freezer bags and place them in the freezer for another time, or cook them right away.
5. To finish the pierogis, place a saute pan over a medium heat and drop about a TBS of whole butter into it. When it reaches the foaming stage, sauté a few dieced shallots or onions in the butter then add the drained pierogi . Cook until browned and crisped. Serve hot with sour cream, applesauce, browned butter or any other condiment you like.