Varenikis, Varenykys, Pelmeni or варе́ники are what we in the US call Perogis--they're known by their Polish moniker here. Whatever you call them, these dumplings will find a way into your heart and onto your favorites list at first taste.
The area around the farm in Bowen is called La Escandinava; the people who founded it (and built the all-important irrigation systems that provided vital water to the farms) were Norwegian. But the people who settled and populated the area were Russians and Ukrainians, with names like Piechotiuk and Czyaka and Pepalaskov. They came to that little farming village in Argentina, often speaking no Spanish, working back-breaking long hours scratching out a living in a foreign place. Land in Argentina was cheap and plentiful for the waves of European immigrants looking for a fresh start.
Like all new immigrants, they brought with them their own culture, cuisine and traditions. They picked up some new Argentinean traditions along the way, and added their own into the cultural soup. In Bowen, mass is still said in both Ukrainian and Spanish on Sundays at the little church we got married in, Nuestra Sen~ora de Perpetuo Soccorro (Our Lady of Perpetual Help).
But let's get down to business and start talking Varenikis--dumplings made of noodle dough and stuffed with either savory fillings or sweet, then boiled until they float and eaten right away or lightly browned in a bit of oil if you can wait that long. My mother-in-law, Florencia, stuffs hers with potatoes and ricotta, but there are a variety of ways to stuff them.
This is one of Guillermo's most requested dishes when he goes home to Bowen. It's another favorite dish his mother makes, and on our last visit, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and learn to make them, despite my intimidation. We bought the raw milk homemade ricotta farm fresh from the Russian ladies at their little farmer's market stand, and went home to start making Varenikis.
When I made them here for the first time the other day, it took a while to get into a rhythm, but then I was loving making and stuffing each little dumpling. I was able to make them in the couple of hours I have free while Esteban is in school; I put them in the fridge and simply boiled them up when it came time for dinner.
In her James Beard award-winning Russian cookbook, Please To The Table, author Anya von Bremzen calls Vareniki "one of the most beguiling 'just one more' foods." It's true. You'll think three Vareniki will be enough, and after six think you can't possibly eat one more, and then you do.
Von Bremzen says "Happiness Is Plenty of Vareniki," and as I watched Guillermo take his first bite, close his eyes and sigh with satisfaction, I know she is completely right--something I think the folks in La Escandinava would agree with.
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Potato and Ricotta Dumplings
The lemon juice added to the filling here was to give it the sharp freshness of the flavor of the wonderful homemade ricotta we had in Bowen. If you make your own ricotta, you can omit the lemon juice. The Vareniki can be eaten boiled (as in the top photo) or boiled and then lightly browned in some oil in a frying pan (as in the photo following the recipe).
2 cups flour, plus more for kneading
1-2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon oil
7-9 tablespoons water
1 1/2 cups mashed potatoes
1 1/2 cups ricotta cheese
juice from half a lemon
butter, for serving
If you don't already have mashed potatoes, peel 6 medium Russet potatoes and cut into one inch dice. Put in a large pot, cover with cold water up to one inch above the potatoes, and bring to a boil in the stove top. Add a tablespoon of salt. Cook until soft when pierced with a fork, about 20 minutes. Drain. Put the potatoes through a ricer or mash with a masher in a bowl. Add a bit of milk and taste for salt, adding more if necessary. Stir until you have a smooth puree.
To make the dough, in a food processor, combine the flour and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Separate one of the eggs, and reserve the white for sealing the Vareniki later on. Add the remaining egg and yolk into the food processor along with the oil and water and blend until the dough forms a ball.
Put the dough on a floured surface and knead by hand until smooth, about two minutes. Cover with a linen (not terrycloth) towel and let sit for 30 minutes to an hour.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the mashed potatoes and ricotta and mix very well with a fork. Add in the lemon juice, if using, and salt to taste.
Divide the dough into two balls, leaving one ball covered with the towel. Roll out the dough with a rolling pin on a floured surface. Also flour your rolling pin. The dough should be rolled fairly thin, about 1/8 inch or thinner. Cut dough into rounds using a 3-inch round cookie cutter. Shape the scraps back into a ball and re-roll. Repeat with the other ball.
To fill, place a heaping spoonful of the filling in the center of one cut out of the dough. Using your finger, spread the egg white around the edge of the dough (you might need to stretch the dough a little) and pull the edges together to form a crescent shape. Seal by pinching edges together firmly. Repeat until you have filled all of the Varneiki. Keep Vareniki on a plate covered with a towel to prevent drying while you are making the others.
When assembled, the Vareniki can be frozen (uncooked) or refrigerated for a day or two. Bring a large pot of water to boil and lower each Vareniki in one at a time. Lower the heat to medium, and let the Vareniki boil until they float to the top, about 6 minutes. Remove using a slotted spoon, and then drain in a colander. If desired, heat a small amount (a couple of tablespoons) of oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat and add a few Vareniki. Cook about 2 minutes each side or until golden colored. This is a great option for leftover Vareniki the next day, if you have any leftover!!
Serve with butter on top.