GRUB! Pelmeni

Sunday, September 15, 2013

I have not been bowled over by Russian cuisine yet, but maybe that's because I haven't eaten much typically Russian food yet.  And, given their fondness for dill and propensity to add sour cream to almost anything, I suppose it was inevitable that eventually I'd find something that appealed to me.  Such was the case when I picked up a bag of frozen pelmeni in the grocery store.  (Pronunciation note: it's pell-men-ee)

Pelmeni in the freezer
The pelmeni and other assorted random frozen things.

Pelmeni fall into that vast family of food that arises in almost every culture - the small package of something flavourful wrapped in thin dough.  It's Russia's contribution to the the wonton/ gyoza/ ravioli/ perogy/ kreplach category (a sub-category of boiled/steamed dumpling that falls into the larger clan that includes samosas, empanadas, and even stretching to Cornish pasties, calzone, sausage rolls, Jamaican patties, Pizza Pops and… well I could go on and on.)  Pelmeni are usually round and the ones I got were about an inch across, though apparently they're often larger - up to about two inches.  They're stuffed with ground meat, in my case a combination of beef and pork, but sometimes mushrooms or even fish.  And the dough casing is supposed to be quite thin, making for a pleasing ratio of dough to filling.

The frozen pelmeni, ready for the pot.

Apparently pelmeni are well-suited to freezing, and often associated with Siberia, where they were preserved by the simple expedient of leaving them outside (probably for about 15 seconds). I just thought they looked at lot like tortellini, and I was planning to do something pasta-ish with them.  When I got them back to my room I thought I should look up what one is really supposed to do, which, as I suspected, does not normally involve pesto.  It turns out the usual method is to boil them in broth to make soup, which sounded a bit dull.  I elected to ignore that and treated them like tortellini, and they were FANTASTIC.  You know how toretllini and ravioli can often have a sort of indeterminate mushy filling that's kind of hard to place?  Pelemni have none of that.  A pelmeni might look like tortellini on the outside, but inside they're denser and chewier and the meat is coarser and more flavourful.  In short, they are scrummy and I devoured a bowl of pesto pelmeni in short order, with little regard for the monumental culture clash I'd just created.

Later in the week I tried something a bit more traditional.  They weather has turned autumnal and I was looking for something quick to make after work, and also looking for any excuse to eat more pelmeni, so it seemed a great time for soup.  Here's an odd thing: you can't get canned soup here.  You know the aisle in the supermarket that's lined with cans of Campbell's Chunky and generic chicken noodle and scotch broth and cream of tomato and all? That doesn't exist here.  At first I wondered if I was just shopping in a particularly crap place, so I consulted with the one Russian native on our team at work.  Anna is my go-to person for all questions of Russian culture, language and cuisine so the fact that she was puzzled by the very notion of soup in a can confirmed that this deficiency is, in fact, normal. This doesn't mean you can't get soup in a grocery store, it just means you're limited to envelopes of dehydrated soup only.  There's a reasonable selection of dehydrated stuff, but it's all in that Lipton-Cup-a-Soup sort of style, meaning that you only every get little cubes of unidentifiable vegetables paired with those skinny short noodles that added together make it look like you're eating a bowl of punctuation marks.  In fancier stores you can also get fresh soup in plastic pots, but the familiar can of condensed soup is absent.

So back to my mid-week supper.  The soup came from an envelope, which meant it was a very simple thing to throw the dry soup, frozen pelmeni and some extra frozen vegetables into a pot of water and cook up a reasonable supper in very short order.  Here again, the pelmeni shone as an excellent addition, and really made the soup into a meal.  It was also yummy and filling the next day for lunch.  Two points for pelmeni.

Anna was pleased and impressed that I'd embraced this little bit of Russian food culture so heartily, and told me that if I liked pelmeni, I had to try varenyky. Ha!  I grew up in Saskatchewan, which has almost as many Ukrainians as Ukraine, so the notion that a varenyky (or perogy) might be something unknown and exotic is a little bit like suggesting that I might enjoy watching a game of the fast-paced winter sport known here as Хоккей.

In any case, Anna told me her favourite way to have pelmeni, which agreed with several accounts I'd read online, so it seemed clear that this was a method that needed trying out. Basically, the boiled pelmeni are drained and then fried in a pan, and served with Russian sour cream, called cmetana (with a soft c, "smetana") and, oddly, a dash of soy sauce. Apparently this is often done with leftover pelmeni that were cooked in broth the previous day (though the notion that there might be "leftover" pelmeni is difficult to believe.)  One person online even commented that despite the fact that he greatly preferred the fried option, his Russian-born wife insisted that the first batch must be eaten in broth instead of skipping directly to the fried version.  Luckily, I have no such compunctions, as must already be evident, given the culture-blind pesto-pelmeni combo described above.  Off I went to the grocery store to pick up some cmetana and soy sauce.


Cmetana seems to be a pretty big deal.  Where sour cream takes up one section of one shelf in the average North American dairy case, the cmetana section in my local shop is roughly 10 times that size.  And it's not exactly like North American sour cream either.  I got the slightly-less-fat version and can report that it's not so tangy as sour cream, and is thinner and smoother.  More like creme fraiche.  The milder taste is quite nice, and I also enjoyed it on some fresh figs I had for dessert, along with a drizzle of warm honey.  (And can I just say that 6 fresh figs cost about £1.50 which is bloody brilliant.  And honey is a whole other world here.  I really need to blog about honey…).  But back to the fried pelmeni.

Here it is, in the pan.

I have a touch of my Mom's propensity to muck around with recipes, so I added some onions and sliced mushrooms to the pan (reasoning that fried perogies without fried onions are a crime against God and Man and pelmeni probably fall into the same category).  I cooked the pelmeni in a pot of salted water, drained them, and tossed them in the pan for a generous amount of time until they got golden brown and delicious.  Then, a generous dollop of cmetana and a splash of soy sauce.

And here's the result

Unsurprisingly, it was excellent.  What's not to like? Chewy, sausagey dumplings, FRIED, with onions and mushrooms and SOUR CREAM, and a bit of salty seasoning?  I ask you, what could be better? (This, and the figgy dessert described above just go to bolster my long-standing conviction that there is no food that is NOT improved by the addition of sour cream.) I hoovered through the bowl in record time and had to hold myself back from a second helping.  I did manage to restrain myself, meaning I had a few leftovers for lunch the next day, which was exactly what I needed after a long and chilly afternoon of Christmas shopping at Izmailovsky Market.  Which is definitely a story for another week.


Anonymous said...

Bravo Pam! Great to follow your Muskovite adventures...keep 'em coming!

Kathryn said...

That almost makes me want to visit Russia!!! I could happily eat that at every meal....until the scurvy set in...

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