I’ve often felt that I have one of the most unglamorous heritages imaginable. (Sorry, mom and dad.) I was always jealous of my friends and their Swedish, French, Italian, Spanish, or Brazilian roots. And the food! Highly spiced, ridiculously savory, or just downright iconic cuisines always made me a little green-eyed. My mom has Amish background, with roots in Switzerland and Germany. My dad is from the Russian Mennonites, who originated in Holland/Germany as well, but they traveled across eastern Europe through present day Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. I’m no historian, so these are very basic details, but all of this to say that it makes sense why Russian Mennonite cuisine would share so many qualities with that of Poland, Ukraine, and other parts of Eastern Europe.
For most of my life, I characterized it by simple blandness. A basic traditional Amish dinner is all shades of yellow and neutral browns and tans. You’re picturing it now, aren’t you? Chicken, mashed potatoes, egg noodles, gravy, applesauce, creamed corn, bread with Amish peanut butter (a concoction that involves both peanut butter and marshmallow fluff), and top it off with peanut butter cream pie or apple pie. Food is “spiced” with the ultimate trio: salt, sugar, and butter. Yes, I think butter counts as a spice here. Having grown up on Brazilian food with its lavish quantities of garlic, cilantro, and onions, it just seemed boring. Boring and too sweet. I remember being served rice pudding for the first time in 4th grade in the school cafeteria while my family was on furlough in the States. And the first time someone ever served me baked beans. I couldn’t believe people actually put sugar in them.
But I digress. You didn’t click on this post to read about my difficulties with culture shock. All that to say that I’m now 30 (*ahem* celebrating another anniversary of my 21st birthday), and I’m just now starting to appreciate my culinary heritage.
One of the turning points was a trip Joel and I took to Europe 3 years ago. Our first stop was Prague, Czech Republic and we were there in February. In case anyone is curious, Prague is 10 degrees further north than Danville, Ohio. In other words…it was COLD.
Prague is an infinitely charming city. The people are for the most part, very reserved, and I think even without knowing their history, you would get the impression that life hasn’t been/isn’t always easy there. On our first day there, we crossed from the east side of Old Town, over the Charles Bridge, and hiked the long, long hill to the Prague Castle. It was about 20 degrees F out and by the time we’d toured the (very cold) Castle grounds, we were ready for lunch. I got out my trusty Tripadvisor app, and located a restaurant within reasonable walking distance that was still far enough from the castle that it would be more reasonably-priced. We walked into Restaurace U Labuti, and were greeted by a menu with both concessions to Westerners (spaghetti, stuffed chicken breast, etc.) and Czech traditional options. Our friendly taxi driver who picked us up from the airport had outlined a number of must-taste Czech options, so Joel got the beef goulash with bread dumplings and I got the roast duck with dumplings and cabbage.
It looks so….humble. Rustic is probably what the TV chefs would say. But then I took a bite. I don’t remember anything specific about the flavor. Only that it was hot, covered in fragrant gravy, and utterly delicious. The words hearty and honest came to mind. And if you’ll permit me a little more romanticizing…I felt for a split second like I understood what it felt like to work outside in the cold, bleak fields and to come inside and eat something so deeply satisfying.
There is a common thread that extends through “peasant food” of cuisines all over the world. Meat-stretching, rib-sticking, and using sauce to keep the uber starchy foods from sticking in your throat. The indigenous people in Brazil eat small chunks of roasted meat in broth with toasted manioc flour. The humbler Brazilian meals are beans and rice, with lots of bean broth and manioc flour…sometimes with only a few small pieces of sausage as the token meat. And then there’s vereneke.
Before I go any further, I should acknowledge that there are apparently more ways to spell vereneke than I would have thought possible. The original word is probably varenyky, but it seems to be a broader term for several different kinds of filled dumplings similar or the same as pierogis.
And since I’m already doing disclaimers, I should also mention/warn/ward off haters by saying that I cook for my family. My mom cooked for hers. My grandma cooked for hers. If my recipes don’t seem “authentic” to you, it’s because you and your ancestors have likely customized your recipes based on taste, available ingredients and tools, and ingenuity (which is my preferred term for being too lazy to hand-knead vereneke dough when I have a perfectly competent Kitchen Aid on my counter). For instance, my mom used to serve pluma moos or cherry moos (a kind of fruit pudding) as a dessert…much to my dad’s chagrin. He won’t hesitate to tell you that it isn’t really a dessert, but part of a main meal that always included fried ham. Zwieback taste better to my grandpa when they have their little hats on than when they don’t.
In any case, the recipe that will follow is my interpretation of what I think is one of the most delicious comfort foods in all of the Russian Mennonite tradition.
In my world, vereneke (by the way, I chose this spelling simply because I liked the way it looked the best) is a dumpling with a cottage cheese filling inside a thinly-rolled dough pocket. For those of you who’ve never heard of them, I’d call them the Eastern European cousin to an Italian raviolo. Once filled, the dumplings are boiled, sauteed in butter, and then covered with a rich ham gravy. Occasionally, the sauteeing step is omitted.
The next post will be the full recipe complete with step by step pictures. I have a couple of reasons for breaking this into two posts. For one thing…this is already over a thousand words. For another, I’m still in the middle of making them. Because of the nature of the ingredients, this is a multiple-day process.
I know my blogging track record hasn’t been the best…but stick with me. After vereneka comes my conversion to the deliciousness of Amish food.
I’ll leave you with these two delightful pictures of my Russian Mennonite ancestors.