My parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. In 1929, at age 10, my father came to Detroit from Czechoslovakia with his parents and two brothers. My mother left her parents’ farm in western Ukraine via Gdansk and London to Detroit in 1938, shortly before World World II broke out. She was 19.
The Ukrainian famine-genocide known as the Holodomor starved millions of people to death from 1932 to 1933. Stalin and his followers punished Ukrainian farmers (80 percent of the population) for resisting to relinquish their land and instead work on government collective farms. The famine was also designed to crush aspirations for Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union.
My grandparents sent their youngest child to America to escape.
Unlike my father, my mother brought her culture and cuisine with her. Throughout my childhood she fed me with what she knew of family, history, politics, traditions, language, culture, and of course, her native food.
My mother filled me with stories of Russian aggression and of artist-writer dissidents like the beloved Taras Schevchenko who was exiled for writing in Ukrainian, promoting Ukrainian independence and mocking the elitist Russian tsar Nicolas and his tsarina.
My mother spoke lovingly of Ukraine’s fertile soil called chernozem. Two-thirds of Ukraine’s land consists of this dark black earth, rich in organic matter. It’s a resource that has rendered Ukraine one of the most bountiful farming regions in the world and earned it the name “breadbasket of Europe.” There are only two “chernozem belts” in the world: the Canadian prairies and the Eurasian steppes of which Ukraine is part. So prized is this soil that during the German occupation of Ukraine in WWII soldiers shipped trainloads of it to Germany!
Why should you care about Ukraine? If I’ve learned anything from my mother and Ukrainian relatives it’s what noted historian Dr. Heather Cox Richardson writes: “Americans (should) care about Ukraine because what is happening there is a proxy war between oligarchy and democracy. Putin’s corrupt oligarchy, in which a few rich men carve up their country and any other countries they can grab to pocket huge amounts of money, is fighting Ukraine because its people want a democracy based in the rule of law.”
Ukraine is a country wealthy in natural resources like arable land, iron ore, coal, natural gas and minerals, and is one of the world’s largest grain exporters, but currently Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe. Foreign analysts agree that rampant corruption is the reason for Ukraine’s economic woes.
Ukrainians have suffered through so much war, occupation, totalitarian regimes, death, hunger and corruption.
Cuisine is deeply precious to them; it relieves and is protection from the hunger that is never far from their memories. I have visited Ukraine with my mother on many occasions.
Our host and hostesses’ tables were always laden with food. Cuisine is their way of soothing the ever-present grief and of honoring family.
My mother’s traditional Ukrainian Christmas Eve consisted of twelve “meatless” dishes: vegetarian borscht, kutia (boiled wheat berries, poppyseed, walnuts and honey), varenyky (dumplings stuffed with potato and cheese, cherries or prunes), holubtsi (stuffed cabbage with onions and rice or buckwheat), pickled herring, mushroom (porcini) gravy, fruit compote, kolach (homemade, eggy yeast bread with saffron), salmon and broad beans. I dedicate this column and the recipes to my mother’s beleaguered homeland and to my mother, who followed her Ukrainian relatives’ promptings in her own home.
My Mom’s Varenyky (Pyrohy)
This recipe may seem daunting, but if you make the filling up ahead it goes quickly.
Less eggs make a tender dough.
Makes 4 to 5 dozen 2-1/2 inch varenyky
4 C. unbleached flour
3/4 to 1 t. salt
2 large eggs
1 C. cool water
Potato Filling — for one batch of dough
4 medium baking potatoes, about 2#, peeled, diced, boiled till tender
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 T. unsalted butter
1 medium onion, about 1/2#, finely diced
1 C. cottage cheese, optional
Sauerkraut Filling—for 1/2 batch of dough
1 1/2 lb. sauerkraut, drained
1/3 C. extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
Mushroom Filling—for 1/2 batch of dough
1 oz. dried porcini mushrooms (known as pitpanky in Ukraine)
8 oz. domestic mushrooms
2 T. unsalted butter
1/2 medium onion, finely diced
2 or more T. chopped fresh dill
Fresh or frozen berries, pitted cherries or plums or mashed stewed prunes
Garnishes: melted butter, sugar mixed with cinnamon, sour cream or browned diced onions
Measure flour into a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour; drop in salt and eggs. Whisk eggs lightly with a fork and pour in the water, gently whisking. Stir flour into eggs and water until you have a soft dough. Add up to 2 tablespoons more water if necessary. Knead it a bit and set dough aside in the mixing bowl 20 to 30 minutes, covered with plastic wrap.
Potato filling: Mash the cooled, cooked potatoes till smooth. Sauté onion in olive oil and butter until it’s golden brown. Stir the onion into the potatoes and season with salt. Fold in the cottage cheese if desired. Good tossed with butter and served with sour cream.
Sauerkraut filling: Rinse kraut lightly if it tastes too salty and drain again. Chop it. Heat oil and sauté onion until tender. Add kraut and simmer 10 minutes. Cool. Season to taste.
Mushroom filling: Soak porcini in 1 cup boiling water 20 minutes. Drain, reserving soaking water. Finely grind rehydrated porcini and fresh mushrooms in a food processor. Heat butter and sauté onion until golden. Add half the mushroom soaking water and reduce until dry. Add mushrooms and sauté until dry. Add remaining soaking water and reduce over moderate heat until mushrooms are dry again. Stir in dill and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cool.
Fruit filling: Keep frozen fruit frozen. Toss fresh fruit with a little flour or cornstarch and sugar or leave them plain as did my mother. Very good tossed with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Prune filling: Simmer a pound of pitted prunes with a little water and a pinch of salt until they are tender. Cool them and mash.
Arrange two clean, dry cotton towels on a sheet pan or the nearest surface. Roll out half the dough (it should be earlobe soft now) on a lightly floured surface.
If dough becomes elastic and hard to roll, cover with a dry clean cotton towel and rest 10 minutes. The gluten will soften. Roll dough about 1/8 inch thick. Cut out circles of dough with a 2-1/2 inch diameter round cutter. Place a dough circle on your outstretched fingertips and drop a rounded teaspoon of filling in the center.
Bring edges together and pinch them with lightly floured hands to form a semicircle. The dough should be so soft so that it presses and seals well. If not, lightly wet the inside edge.
Set varenyky on the towel you have prepared and cover it with the other towel. Finish making all the varenyky—keep them covered. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Pinch the edges of the pyrohy again to thin them as you slide several into the water at a time—don’t overwhelm the pot. Boil them until they rise and then a minute more. Scoop the varenyky out into a serving bowl and toss with a little butter (or finely diced onion browned in oil). Serve hot.
To reheat, place pyrohy in sauté pan with a little water and cover to steam them.
Alternatively, sauté them in butter or oil until browned and hot. You may freeze varenyky up to six months. Place on a sheet pan to freeze then place into a freezer bag.
Frances Krcek’s Christmas Eve Kutia
The Ukrainian flag consists of two simple blocks of color: sky blue on top and yellow under it. They represent Ukrainian farmlands under blue skies, full of ripe wheat, for which Ukraine is famous.
6 to 8 servings
1/2 lb. wheatberries, soaked overnight in 6 cups water
1/2 C. honey, to taste
1/2 C. poppyseeds, soaked overnight in boiling water
1/2 C. walnuts, toasted lightly and chopped
Bring wheatberries and their soaking water to a boil, lower the heat, cover the pot and simmer until tender, 2 to 3 hours. Cool. When you are ready to mix the kutia together, rinse wheatberries in a little boiling water to rid them of excess starch. Drain off excess water. Sweeten them to taste with some of the honey.
Drain poppyseeds and pound in a mortar with a pestle.
Stir poppyseeds and half the walnuts into the wheatberries. Taste the kutia and stir in more honey if desired. Pile the kutia artfully onto a serving dish and garnish with remaining walnuts.