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Kotlety (Croquettes/Patties/Mini-Meatloaves/Etc.)

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Kotlety
This is a multiple-recipe post.  Scroll down for:
  • Classic Meat Kotlety
  • Pozharskie Kotlety
  • Farmer Style Pork Kotlety; and
  • Steamed Veal Cutlety With Mushroom Bechamel
The Russian word “kotlety” (singular: kotleta) does not have a true equivalent in English because this kind of dish (and its many, many variations) is not well-known in the English speaking world. There are things that are similar — rissoles, Hamburg steak, Salisbury steak, meatloaf — but these are generally obscure.  People sometimes translate “kotlety” as “patties”, but it’s sort of like translating “ravioli” as “dumplings” — broadly accurate, but does not really give you a precise idea of what we are talking about.  
The word “kotleta” comes from the French term côtelette de porc — pork chop — and originally had the same meaning.  The English word “cutlet” has the same origin.  Over the centuries, however, the French côtelette evolved in parts of Europe and Central Asia to mean something very different.  The  “cutlet” as it appears today in Russian, Ukrainian and certain Central Asian cuisines is basically a portion-sized mini-meatloaf, an oblong-shaped croquette made from ground meat (though fish and vegetarian varieties exist) mixed with mashed bread, or (less commonly) potato or cereals, and pan-friend or oven-roasted.  Onions are usually added as well, and raw egg is used as a binding agent.  Kotlety may or may not be breaded.  They are typically not stewed in any kind of gravy, and are eaten with mustard, ketsup or hot sauce (though one of the recipes below calls for a mushroom gravy).*  I will broadly refer to them as “meat croquettes“.
*And, because language evolution is always uneven, the Russian term “otbivnaya kotleta” (“beaten cutlet”) refers to a true cutlet or pork chop that has been tenderized — i.e. “beaten” — before being cooked.
Classic Meat Coquettes
Ingredients:
1 lb unseasoned meatloaf mix (beef, pork and veal)
1/2 lb ground pork
1/3 baguette loaf, sliced, crusts removed
1 cup whole milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 medium onion, finely minced
2 tbsp butter
vegetable oil with a high smoking point, such as sunflower or coconut
salt and pepper to taste
Tools:
Heavy, non-stick, oven-proof dish or skillet (cast iron skillet will work best)
1 large non-stick skillet for sauteeing the onions and frying the kotlety
meat grinder or food processor
2 large bowls
Directions:
1.  Arrange baguette slices on the bottom of a shallow dish and pour milk over them.  Allow to soak for about 25 minutes, turning over half way through.
2.  Melt the butter in a skillet and sautee the onions until soft and golden, about 20 minutes.  Take off heat and allow to cool.
3.  Squeeze as much milk as possible from the soaked bread.  Discard the milk.  Mash the soaked bread by putting it through a meat grinder or a food processor.
4.  Combine the meat loaf mix, the additional pork, sauteed onions, mashed bread and egg in a large mixing bowl, season with salt and generous amounts of freshly ground black pepper, and mix thoroughly.  Taste for seasonings by cooking a small portion of the mix in a microwave oven.  Cover and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
5.  Preheat the oven to 350F.  Lightly oil an oven-proof dish or skillet, preheat it and keep warm.
6.  Add enough vegetable oil to the frying skillet until it’s about 1/4 inch deep.  Preheat it until the oil is rippling slightly, but not smoking.
7.  Take the meat mix out of the refrigerator, and turn  and mix it for a few seconds. Fill another bowl with tepid water and keep it next to the meat container.
8.  Dip your hands into the bowl of water and pat lightly with a towel (Hint: this is an excellent trick for preventing ground meat from sticking to your fingers.)  Break off a piece of meat about the size of a baseball and roll it between your palms for a few seconds, until it becomes a smooth ball.  Then flatten it and shape the sides until the croquette is oblong about about 1 to 1 1/2 inch thick, with a slight dip in the middle (the slight dip will prevent the patty from contracting into a meatball shape as it cooks).  Continue making the patties, periodically dipping your hands into the water bowl and patting them, to prevent sticking.
9.  Fry the croquettes on both sides on medium-high heat until a crust forms, about 3 minutes per side.  (The croquettes need not be cooked all the way through.)
10.  Transfer the fried croquettes to the oven-proof dish or skillet, cover losely with aluminum foil and roast in the oven for about 30 minutes.
11.  Let stand, covered, for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Chicken Croquettes Pozharsky (Pozharskie Kotlety)
Sometimes, a chef just gets it right — creating a dish so delightful, so elegant, it instantly becomes a classic.  To the diner, a Croquette Pozharsky looks deceptively simple — it’s just a chicken patty — but it is the best chicken patty you will ever have, with a delicate, complex buttery flavor that is guaranteed to make it a favorite.  Pozharsky is one of the haute classics of the Russian cuisine, the dignified, regal predecessor to the boorish, tourist-oriented monstrosity that is “chicken Kiev”.  (I have only one thing to say about Chicken Kiev — well, apart from what I already have: I never make it and neither should you.)
 
I like stories about the origins of beloved dishes, even if they are apocryphal.  Historic or not, they are an indelible part of folklore.  About Pozharsky’s croquettes, a couple of stories are told, though both versions agree that “Pozharsky” is the name of the inventor.  According to one story, the dish was invented at an inn owned by the Pozharsky family, plying its business in a small provincial town straddling the stage road between Moscow and St. Petersburg.  The croquettes were originally made of veal, but the chef eventually switched to chicken due to better flavor.  It is these croquettes that are believed to have been mentioned favorably in a private letter by none other than Alexander Pushkin himself.  (Wrote the poet in 1826, in verse, because he could rhyme and keep meter as easily as you and I can breathe, and also was a total showoff: “If you  have a chance, dine at Pozharsky’s in Torzhok, be sure to order their fried kotlety, and leave delighted.”  Sorry, I can translate, but not in verse.)
Torzhok

Torzhok, the ostensible birthplace of Pozharsky’s croquettes.  The building that housed the famous tavern (which was still in operation in the 1910’s, almost a century after Pushkin mentioned it in his letter to a friend) is still extant and was extensively restored in 2012.

One day, a royal party stopped at the inn to have lunch ,and the tsar was so impressed with the dish, that he had the inn’s chef disclose his secret, so that the dish could be included in the royal palace menu.
 
According to another story, the dish was invented in a tavern in Kiev owned by a widow with the last name Pozharsky.  Although the tavern catered to a middling clientele, the popularity of the dish attracted the attention of upscale chefs from up north, who prevailed on Widow Pozharsky to disclose her secret, in exchange for attaching her name to the dish.
 
Either one of those stories could have a grain of truth, and perhaps both supply some historical details.  For whatever it’s worth, the unabashed addition of pure fat involved in this dish leads me to believe that it’s probably Ukrainian in origin.
Bottom line: Pozhasky’s croquettes are incredibly delicious, so go ahead and make them.  I promise you, you won’t regret the work.
 
The “secret” to Croquette Pozharskys’ incredible flavor and texture is actually two things.
 
First, the butter.  The recipe involves the addition of finely shredded frozen butter to chilled ground chicken and then keeping the mixture well-chilled up until the time the patties hit the skillet.  The tiny butter shavings melt during cooking, evenly basting the meat from the inside.  Rather than do my traditional Q&A at the end, I’ll just answer the question you are probably asking right now: adding melted butter and mixing it into the chicken sounds like it might make sense, but for reasons that are beyond my scientific ken, it doesn’t work.  You don’t get the right texture or flavor.  The only way to get it right is to add frozen shredded butter.
 
Second, the crumbs.  The traditional recipe calls for toasted crumbs made from French bread, and states rather vaguely that they should be “large”.  How large is large?  There is a tremendous difference of opinion on that point.  A lot of people make their “crumbs” as big as stuffing pieces or croutons, so that a finished croquette looks like a hedgehog.  I personally don’t like them that big.  I think you get a better result if you make your crumbs larger than ordinary store breadcrumbs, but still fine enough that they fuse with the meat to form a crust during cooking.  That said, yes, you are making your own crumbs for this one.  You can make them a day ahead though.
 
One more thing.  You will need regular butter for the croquette mix and clarified butter for frying.  In case you are not sure what clarified butter is: ordinary butter consists of butterfat and milk solids (and some water).  If you melt butter in a skillet, you will see it separate into an oil-like substance and tiny white flakes floating at the top.  The flakes are the milk solids.  Using butter for frying is fine if it’s something that cooks very fast, like eggs; but it does not work for searing meat at high heat, because the milk solids become scorched, adding black specks and burned flavor.  But if you scoop out the milk solids and just leave the butterfat, that’s perfect for high-temperature cooking.  Clarified butter sears meat evenly and cleanly while imparting that delicious butter flavor. When cooled, clarified butter will solidify, but will be a darker yellow than ordinary butter; homemade clarified butter also tends to be grainy when chilled.  Making clarified butter by yourself is a labor-intensive and messy undertaking, so you should just buy some. Be careful doing so, however, and be sure to read the ingredient list.  Clarified butter is expensive (the process generates a lot of waste), and many dairy manufacturers will cut it with vegetable spread, hydrogenated oil and other inferior additives.  That’s the reason why I never buy Russian clarified butter.  You need the real thing — 100% butterfat.  Your best bet for finding real clarified butter at a reasonable price is unseasoned cow ghee that you can find at Indian markets.  
Ingredients:
2 French-style baguettes, crusts sliced off and reserved for another use
2 lbs ground chicken dark meat
1 medium onion, minced
1/8 lb (1/2 stick) salted butter, frozen overnight
1/4 lb clarified butter (or cow ghee)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp ground white pepper
1 cup half-and-half
salt to taste
Tools:
fine shredder, placed in the freezer overnight
1 large pre-chilled bowl
heavy non-stick oven-proof pan or skillet
chilled serving spoon or spatula (if using)
Directions:
Stage I:  The Breadcrumbs
1.  Preheat the oven to 325 F.
2.  Set aside 1/2 of one baguette.
3.  Cut the remaining 1 1/2 baguette into cubes a bit smaller than salad croutons (about 1 cm).
4.  Arrange the bread cubes in a single layer on an oven sheet and toast in the oven until hard and crunchy, but not darkened, about 10-15 minutes.  Cool, uncovered, to room temperature.
5.  Pound the croutons in a bowl with a pestle, or seal them in a plastic bag and crush with a rolling pin, until you have bread crumbs somewhat chunkier than ordinary store breadcrumbs, but fine enough to be “crumbs”.  Homemade breadcrumbs will be of uneven size.  Don’t crush them to the point of pulverizing them in order to get something uniform, you need the crumbs to be fairly large.
6.  Transfer to a completely dry container and store in a dark, cool place.
Stage II: Prepare the chicken mix.
1.  Melt 1 tbsp of clarified butter in a skillet, add the onion and sauté until soft, golden and just beginning to crisp, about 30 minutes.  Take off heat, drain on paper towels and let cool.
2.  Slice the remaining baguette and soak in half-and-half for 30 minutes.  Squeeze out the liquid and mash the bread until smooth or put it through a meat grinder.
2.  In a pre-chilled bowl, combine chicken, sautéed onion, egg, white pepper and mashed bread.  Season with salt and mix thoroughly.  Test for salt by cooking a small amount in a microwave and tasting it.  Chill in the refrigerator for 2 hours.
3.  Wrap one end of a frozen butter stick in a paper towel.  Using a freezer-chilled shredder, quickly shred the butter over the meat.  Mix to combine using a chilled spoon or spatula.  (You can use your hands to mix, but if you do it that way, make sure to dip your hands in some ice beforehand, to prevent your body heat from softening or melting the butter.)
4.  Cover the mix and chill in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
Stage III: Prepare and Cook the Croquettes
1.  Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2.  Brush the oven-proof pan or skillet with clarified butter and place it in the oven.
3.  Add some breadcrumbs to a shallow bowl or platter.
4.  Melt a generous amount of clarified butter in a non-stick skillet.
5.  Rinse your hands with cold water.  Take the chicken mix out of the refrigerator and turn in the bowl a few times.
6.  Periodically rinsing your hands with cold water, shape oblong patties about the size of a hockey puck (but oblong) and roll them in the crumbs until fully coated.
7.  Sear the patties at medium-high heat until a golden-brown crust forms, about 3-4 minutes per side.  Make sure not to crowd the patties in the skillet.
8.  Transfer the seared patties to the oven pan or heavy skillet and roast another 30 minutes or so.  Cover the pan loosely with aluminum foil to prevent over-roasting.
Stage IV:  Serve.
1. Take the pan out of the oven, transfer the patties to a warmed platter, cover with foil and let stand for about 15 minutes before serving.
2.  Garnish with with parsley and halved cherry tomatoes.
3.  Serve with truffled mashed potatoes.

 

Farmer Style Pork Croquettes
“Farmer-style” (po krestjanski) dishes in Russian cuisine invariably involve cooking things in pork fat.  The more traditional version of this recipe calls for using salo — cured fatback; incorporating the cracklings left over from rendering the fat into the croquette mix, and frying the croquettes in the rendered salo fat.  That’s true farmer style for you!  It is, however, a bit too much for  modern sensibilities, given that most of us don’t burn 6000 calories a day doing 10 hours of back-breaking labor, and would like to live past the age of 45.  Accordingly, I replace salo with bacon and cook the croquettes in vegetable oil.  Shredded potato replaces mashed bread in this recipe.
 
N.B.:  Croquette mix works best when it’s chilled.  One option is to prepare the mix a day ahead and refrigerate it overnight.
Ingredients:
2 lbs ground pork
1 lb Russian or Polish-style mild steamed bacon, finely chopped
1 large starchy potato, such as Idaho
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp fennel seed, toasted and ground
1 tbsp powdered marjoram
4 eggs
1/4 cup whole milk
1 cup all purpose flour + more if needed
1 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
minced chives
salt to taste
vegetable oil
Directions:
1.  Boil the potato with skin on in lighly salted water until it can be easily pierced with a fork.  Remove from the pot, let cool, peel and finely shred.
2.  Warm the bacon in a skillet until it begins to render fat, then add the onion.  Saute over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until most of the fat is rendered and the onion is a deep golden color, at 35 minutes.  Pour off excess fat and drain the bacon-onion mixture on paper towels.
3.  Combine ground pork, bacon, onion, shredded potato, 1 lightly beaten egg, fennel seed, marjoram and 1/2 tbsp ground black pepper.  Add a generous pinch of salt and mix to combine.  Taste the mixture for salt by cooking a teaspoonful in a microwave, adding more if necessary.  Cover or wrap the container and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
4.  Preheat the oven to 350F.
5.  Whisk the remaining three eggs with the milk in a shallow bowl until smooth and slightly foamy.
6.  In a separate shallow bowl, season the flour with a pinch of salt and the remaining 1/2 tbsp ground black pepper.
7.  Pour the bread crumbs into a third bowl.
8.  Warm approximately 1/4 inch of vegetable oil in a heavy, non-stick skillet.
9.  Remove the croquette mix from the refrigerator and mix and turn for a few seconds.  Break off pieces about the size of baseballs and form oblong croquettes.  Dredge them in flour, dip in the egg mixture and roll in bread crumbs.  Fry in oil until golden, about 3 minutes per size.
10.  Arrange the pan-fried croquettes in a lightly oiled, non-stick roasting pan, cover loosely with aluminum foil and roast in the oven for about 40 minutes, flipping them over half way through.
11.  Remove the croquettes to a warmed serving dish, cover loosely with foil and let rest for about 10 minutes.
12.  Serve sprinkled with chives and bacon crumbles.

 

Steamed Veal Corquettes with Mushroom Bechamel
VealKotlety
Ingredients:
2 lbs ground veal
1/4 French baguette, crusts removed, cubed and soaked in whole milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp ground sage
salt and pepper to taste
vegetable oil
1 lbs crimini mushrooms, rinsed and patted dry
1 cup dry sherry
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp all-purpose flour
3-4 parsley stalks
a few lighly crushed black peppercorns
salt
1/3 tsp ground white pepper
pinch of nutmeg
1 bayleaf
Directions:
1.  Drain and squeeze the bread.  Mash it finely or grind in a meat grinder.
2.  Combine the veal, mashed bread, egg and seasonings.  Wrap the mixture and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
3.  Prepare a deep skillet filled with simmering water and insert an unfolded steamer basket.  Brush lightly with oil.  Form oblong croquettes and steam, covered, for about 45 minutes.
4.  Pat the steamed croquettes dry and sear them in vegetable oil on both sides until a light crust forms, about 3-4 minutes per side.
5.  Separate the mushroom caps from the stems.  Set the caps aside.  Coarsly chop the stems.  Bring the sherry to a simmer and add the mushroom stems.  Boil until the wine has been reduced by about 2/3.  Add the cream, bring to a simmer, add a pinch of salt, parsley stalks, peppercorns and bayleaf and steep, covered, over a very low flame for about 1 hour.  Strain, discard the solids, and keep the liquid warm.
6.  Finely slice the mushroom caps.  Sautee in butter, stirring frequently, until the liquid drained from the mushrooms has completely evaporated, about 25 minutes. Sift flour over the mushrooms, and cook, stirring frequently, for an additional 20 minutes.  Slowly pour in the reduced wine and then the cream, while whisking vigorously.  Cover the sauce and let simmer over a low flame for 30 minutes.  If too thick, dilute with a bit more cream (do not use milk).  Finish with a pinch of nutmeg.
7.  Ladle the gravy over the croquettes before serving.
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Tefteli (Russian Meatballs)

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tefteliRussian meatballs incorporate rice and are served without a side dish.

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Chanakhi (Georgian Lamb and Eggplant Stew)

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Chanakhi1 lb boneless lamb shoulder, cut into small strips (save the bones for stock)
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, cored and chopped
1 large eggplant, cubed, unpeeled
6 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
3 cups lamb stock (*see below the recipe)
5 cloves garlic, pressed
3 yellow waxy potatoes, peeled and cubed, or small salad potatoes, peeled (immerse them in cool water until ready to use)
1 tbsp khmeli suneli (**see below the recipe)
1 dry cayenne pepper
1 tbsp fresh dill
1 tbsp fresh parsley
1 tbsp fresh cilantro
3 tbsp cooking oil
salt and pepper to taste
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Cabbage Rolls (Golubtsy)

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GolubtsyA mixture of meat and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves and stewed in a savory broth, this is a perfect dish for a cold winter’s day and very popular, in one version or another, throughout Eastern Europe. Ideally, it is made with fresh cabbage leaves for the best possible flavor, but if you want to scale down the amount of preparation involved, you can find pickled cabbage leaves in some Eastern European stores. An even less labor-intensive version is “tefteli” — meatballs that are pan-fried and then stewed in the sauce for about 30 minutes. Do not use bouillon cubes for this dish. Use good-quality canned or frozen stock, or, better yet, make your own using beef and veal bones (I make mine in a slow-cooker).

1 lb ground beef
1 lb ground veal
½ lb coarsely ground pork
1 large head of green cabbage (the paler the cabbage, the better it will taste)
½ cup parboiled rice
1 large onion, minced
10 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced (see below for “How to peel and seed a tomato”)
1 quart strong beef or veal stock
1+ tbsp minced Italian parsley
2+ tbsp minced dill
3 cloves garlic, pressed
1 dry cayenne pepper
1 bay leaf
2 tbsp vegetable oil
salt and pepper to taste
sour cream for garnish

You will need a large-diameter pot with a heavy lid, possibly two. Also, if using fresh cabbage, you will need a large stock pot and a barbecue or roast fork. More

Chicken braised in mushroom sauce, side of buckwheat with bacon

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A word about buckwheat. Not too long ago, I came upon a cooking discussion thread, in which people were wondering whether buckwheat is palatable. Most Americans treat it as a very exotic grain and seem convinced that there is no way to consume it except mixed with a large quantity of noodles.

Buckwheat is a staple of Russian cuisine. It is versatile, easy to prepare and absolutely delicious. It is also a healthy grain, gluten-free and low in calories (although keep in mind, its caloric content can vary dramatically depending on how you dress it and what you add). Flour made from buckwheat has an incomparable chocolaty aroma, and makes a wonderful addition to crepe or pancake batter. So try it; it really is superb.

Braised chicken

1 chicken, carved into 6-8 pieces;
1 lb shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1 cup chicken broth
3/4 cup crème fraîche (or sour cream, but crème fraîche is better)
2 tbsp butter
1/2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
ground sage
minced Italian parsley

– Melt butter in a deep skillet and keep warm. Season the chicken pieces with salt, pepper and sage. Sear over high heat until a golden-brown crust begins to form, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer the chicken to pieces to a Dutch oven.

– Add mushrooms to the skillet, season lightly and saute until they have reabsorbed their liquid.

— Sprinkle the flour over the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes. (Add a little more butter if the mixture is too thick and the flour forms clumps.)

— Pour the chicken broth into the skillet in a thin stream, while whisking the mixture until a slightly thickened sauce forms. Whisk in crème fraîche, adjust the seasonings and pour the sauce over the chicken.

— Set the Dutch oven over a low flame and cook, covered for 1 hour.

— Sprinkle with parsley before serving.

Buckwheat with smoked bacon

2 cups dark buckwheat groats (if the groats are light-brown, roast them in a skillet over medium heat for about 20 minutes and let cook before cooking)
1/3 lb smoked bacon, diced
salt and pepper to taste

– Briefly soak buckwheat in cool water to remove any impurities. Drain. Repeat 1-2 more times.

– Transfer the buckwheat to a pot and add 2 cups cold water. Set over high heat until the liquid comes to a boil. Season with salt and pepper, reduce heat and cover. Simmer for 15 minutes, then remove the lid and allow to cook for 5 more minutes, so that any excess liquid evaporates.

– While the buckwheat is cooking, saute the bacon until the pieces begin to crisp, but are still soft in the middle. Drain, but reserve 1 tbsp bacon fat.

– When the buckwheat is ready, add the bacon and the reserved bacon fat. Adjust the seasonings and serve.

Baked Haddock In Tomato-Cream Sauce

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This recipe works with any mild-flavored, firm-fleshed fish.

1 lb haddock fillet, cut into portions
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
4 plum tomatoes, blanched, peeled, seeded and chopped (see notes at the end)
2 cups fish stock
1/2 cup cream
2 tbsp sour cream
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
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A Primer on Pelmeni and Vareniki: How to Make, Cook and Serve

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Dumplings with filling (called “pelmeni” if they are filled with meat, “vareniki” if the filling is cheese or some vegetable) came to Russia from Central Asia. It’s the perfect fast food for a region with long, intensely cold winters. Making pelmeni — which is how I will collectively refer to them from now on — making pelmeni from scratch is a time-consuming and laborious task, as you shall see shortly, but once you’ve made a bunch, you can always have a hot, tasty and filling meal in mere minutes. As long you take simple precautions against freezer burn, pelmeni will keep indefinitely in subzero temperatures. And so it became a tradition in Siberia and northern Russia for women to make thousands of pelmeni for the long winter as soon as temperatures fell reliably below freezing sometime in mid-November. A day or two of hard work paid off, for the family would have a good source of quick hot meals all winter long. Pelmeni and vareniki would be kept in canvas bags in unheated sheds or barns. If you needed to make dinner, you could just scoop a bunch of dumplings out of a bag with a bowl and take them to the kitchen to be prepared.

Nowadays, there is little reason to make pelmeni from scratch. Frozen pelmeni of very good quality are mass-produced, and given that the process of making them yourself IS quite time-consuming and labor-intensive, most Russians opt to get them from the freezer section of their market. Store pelmeni typically come in three varieties: “Siberian”, filled with a combination of beef, pork and onions; veal, which have a somewhat milder flavor than Siberian; and chicken, whose chief recommendation is that they are lower in calories. Sometimes you can also find “farmer” or “peasant” pelmeni, where the meat filling is stretched with cabbage; they produce a pungent odor with cooked. Farmer pelmeni are traditionally considered inferior (after all, poverty would be the only reason to cut the meat with cabbage), and I don’t recommend them. Central Asian cousins of pelmeni — manty (large dumplings filled with lamb and raw onion) and khenkali (manty’s rough Georgian equivalent) — are also widely available in Russian markets.

The very few people who make pelmeni themselves falls into the following categories: (1) culinary purists with entirely too much time on their hands (guilty as charged); (2) people who are preparing pelmeni with unusual fillings, such as fish or duck; (3) people who follow dietary laws or rules that render industrially produced pelmeni unacceptable; and (4) people who are honing their skills for the impending zombie apocalypse. These days, I don’t, in fact, have much time on my hands, and I think making pelmeni from scratch is more trouble than it’s worth, but since I am writing this long entry already, what the hell, I’ll include a recipe. A word of advice: spread this project over two days. Prepare your filling and put it in the refrigerator overnight, then prepare the dough and form the dumplings the next day. And, before you decide to do this, something to think about: your standard family of four — mom, dad and two kids — can easily put away FIFTY pelmeni in one sitting.

Making pelmeni from scratch: Assuming you already have your filling (more on that later), start with a cup of tepid water, one large egg and a teaspoon of salt. Whisk it all together in a large bowl until slightly foamy, then begin sifting flour in the liquid about ½ cup at a time. Keep adding and whisking in flour until it becomes too thick to whisk, at which point turn the dough out onto a large floured surface and start kneading. Add flour in smaller and smaller increments until you end up with dough that is elastic, but does not stick to your fingers.

Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for one hour. Then, take out of the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature (still wrapped) for at least 45 minutes.

Turn the dough out on a floured surface and knead some more. Cover your ball of dough with a moist towel.

Break off a tennis-ball-sized piece of the dough and roll it out until no more than 1/16 inch thick. (The thinner the skins, the tastier and more tender your pelmeni will be.) Use a glass or a cup with approximately a 2-3 inch diameter to cut rounds from your sheet of dough.

Now for the fun part.

Take one round skin and lay it flat on the palm of your hand. Put 1 teaspoon of filling in the center. Fold over the skin and pinch it together, as if you were making an empanada. Make sure to seal the edges well. At this point, you have a half-moon. Now take the two corners of the half-moon, bring them together towards the middle, and pinch to seal. You now should have something that looks like this:

If you are making vareniki, do not merge the corners, leave them in the shape of tiny empanadas.

Continue making more skins and filling them as described above. Arrange shaped pelmeni in a single layer on a shallow, lightly floured tray, cover, and freeze promptly. (Unfrozen pelmeni should not touch each other on the tray, or they will stick together.) Once pelmeni are completely frozen, you can pack them into sealable bags. They will keep in the freezer for a couple of years before the skins begin cracking and disintegrating.

Fillings: In addition to not having much time these days, I am no longer a culinary purist, either. Fill your pelmeni with whatever you want, be creative. A few caveats, though:

First, for meat-filled dumplings, use fatty cuts and a coarse grind. Filling made from lean meats or meats that have been ground at regular grind tend to lose moisture and shrivel during cooking, producing noticeably inferior pelmeni. So don’t trim (and don’t use chicken, unless you are on a diet) and either use the sausage grind on your grinder or mince the meat by hand. Adding raw onions helps to retain moisture, hence the manty filling recipe — 1 part lamb, 1 part lamb fat, 2 parts raw onions — is ideal. The Jewish version of dumplings, known as “kreplach” contains previously cooked and ground beef mixed with brown onions. Although this is a good way to use leftover roast or brisket, kreplach tend to be dry, which is why the traditional way to serve them is by adding them to soup.

Second, for vegetable vareniki, the main problem is the excess of moisture that you usually have in vegetables. In fact, moisture creates TWO problems. For one, soupy fillings retain heat longer than the outer skin, with the result that such dumplings will burn your mouth when you bite into them. Second, soupy fillings tend to taste bland and unseal the skin. So use starchy vegetables and do not add any liquids to them. Take potatoes, for example, the most common ingredient in vareniki. Regular mashed potatoes do not work as filling. You need to make special, very thick mashed potatoes, which do not incorporate milk, cream, or any other liquid. Boil the potatoes with skin on (or better yet, bake them in salt), peel and mash with butter. Season generously with salt and pepper, and that’s your filling. You may add browned onions for extra flavor, and grated cheese would serve as a further thickening and binding agent. Vegetables and legumes that either contain a lot of water or absorb it readily do not work in vareniki. Mashed beans and chickpeas simply do not work (believe me, I’ve tried).

Classic Siberian pelmeni consist of equal parts beef (I suggest you use short rib) and pork, with a generous addition of onions. There is some degree of disagreement as to whether the onions should be browned beforehand. I prefer adding raw onions, as in my experience, they are better at keeping the filling tender and moist.

Cooking pelmeni: Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add salt, peppercorns and bay leaf. Add frozen pelmeni and run a spoon along the bottom and sides of the pot, to prevent sticking. When all the pelmeni float to the surface, reduce heat and let simmer for 5-8 minutes. Drain and serve.

Serving pelmeni: The traditional way to eat pelmeni is to dress them with vinegar and sour cream. Typically, pelmeni are served undressed, and individual diners add whatever they want to them. The addition of mustard to vinegar and sour cream is common. Another, more rustic way to eat pelmeni is to serve them in their own cooking liquid, with a dollop of butter. Some people pan-fry cooked pelmeni, although this is more common in southwestern parts of Russia, closer to Moldova and Poland, less so in other regions.

In an Afghan restaurant one day, I was served meat-filled dumplings dressed with pureed fresh tomato and sour cream. Although this would not be traditional in Russian cuisine, I thought the flavors were fabulous.

Cooking and serving potato vareniki (“pierogi”): Simmer vareniki in salted water for no more than 2 minutes. Drain and pan-fry on both sides until golden-brown. Serve with browned onions and sour cream.