Part of what I’ve loved so much about undertaking this project is that while I’ve been recreating these dishes, memories flood back quite unexpectedly. While I was pressing together the edges of the dough to make the pilmeni here, I could already smell the finished product in my mind and taste the slippery dumplings with their heady aromas of dill and rich smetana. I remembered our dear housekeeper, Svetlana, dropping the parcels into boiling water and handing me a steaming bowl after school. These were my favorite Russian treat!
Often I’ve heard people complain that Russian food is bland, and each element on its own sort of is. There’s none of the magical sweet, salty, sour, fatty, umami blend that makes Asian food, in particular, so delicious and complex. However, what I’m trying to achieve in this series is a complete meal that, when eaten together, does provide all of those qualities. These rich dumplings are perfection when eaten alongside pickled mushrooms (tune in on Thursday) or a garlicky beet salad (come back tomorrow) or a smokey trout dish (tomorrow as well).
Before I get stuck in, just a quick note on vodka, without which it is hard to imagine any authentic Russian gathering. When we have our big Christmas Eve dinner at home, my mother always encases a vodka bottle in festively decorated ice. Essentially, you take an empty gallon milk or juice carton and cut off the top using a serrated knife. Now place your vodka bottle in the middle, fill the carton with water and carefully arrange holly berries, rose petals, evergreen trimmings, whatever you fancy, in the water. Freeze this, standing up (I’d do another for you with demonstration but my UK fridge can barely hold an ice tray, let alone this project), overnight. Right before serving, peel away the paper carton and you’ve got a beautiful, chilled bottle of vodka for your big event. You might also infuse your vodka with lemon peel (remove after four hours) or a tea bag (remove after two hours) or anise seeds (remove after two hours).
As I was researching pilmeni recipes for this post, I wasn’t surprised to learn that they first were popular in Siberia having evolved from Chinese dumplings. As the old adage goes: every culture has its own version of a dumpling and these are the Russian’s. These will likely be the centerpiece of your viewing party menu, if a little time-consuming. However none of these steps is particularly difficult and if you’re feeling really pressed for time you could buy pre-made dumpling wrappers at your local Asian food shop. There are as many variations of pilmeni (called vareneki if they’re vegetarian or sweet) and if you’d like, feel free to try other fillings: mashed potatoes and onions, sauteed cabage, mushrooms, tvorg (a popular farmers’ cheese) or cherry jam. Just make sure you serve them piping hot with lots of smetana if you can find it (sour cream or creme fraiche if you can’t), herbs, or even a garlic-filled brown butter sauce.
For the dough:
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup water
Mix together the flour and salt on a clean counter and then create a little well in the center of the pile. Break you egg into the well and start to incorporate with your fingers. Slowly add the water as you keep incorporating until you have a pliable, soft dough. Knead until everything comes together, shape into a ball, cover in plastic wrap and place in the fridge until you’re ready to use.
For the meat filling:
1/2 pound of ground meat (any mixture of pork, veal and beef is nice)
1/2 medium yellow onion, grated on box grater
1 clove garlic, grated on microplane
4 tablespoons chopped chives
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Mix everything together in a large bowl. Chill until ready to use.
To make pilmeni:
Roll your dough into a very large round about 1/16 inch thick – this takes some elbow grease! Now take a 3 inch round cutter and make your rounds, place a heaped teaspoon of the meat filling in the middle of each round. Using your finger moisten the edges of each round of dough with water and fold in half to make a half moon. Scrunch together the edges until they’re well-sealed and place on a baking tray. Once you’ve completed all of the pilmeni place the baking tray in the fridge to set until you’re ready to cook them. Roll out any pieces of unused dough and continue process until it’s gone. Any unused meat filling can be frozen, as can the prepared pilmeni at this point.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add a large pinch of salt and turn down the heat so the water is at a nice simmer (too much boiling and the dumplings might come apart). Add the pilmeni and cook for 6-7 minutes. Serve with smetana or sour cream, chopped dill and lots of freshly ground black pepper.