August is prime potato digging season in Ukraine. Families gather in villages throughout the country each weekend to dig, dig, dig. When I arrived in Khmelnetskyi midway through the month, it seemed like all my new friends though about was potatoes. Digging them, frying them, baking them, shooting them, and eating them. At the restaurants, potato chips were always ordered. At home, we hosted a going away party for one of the volunteers by sitting down to a meal of fried potatoes and homemade salsa.
For a while, spuds seemed to be the continual topic of conversation and I had to find a way to further the fun. I offered to help out with one of the students’ farm work for a weekend, thinking getting a little fresh air and dirt under my nails would be good for the soul and a nice interruption from city life. Time slipped by and before I was able to make it out to a Ukrainian village and get my hands dirty with soils and starches, potato season was over. No longer able to follow through with our original plan, we were delighted when a better one was soon thought up.
One of the great gals from school came up with another way to show us a traditional Ukrainian pastime: cooking with foods fresh from the farm. We were going to make vareniki, the country’s version of dumplings synonymous with Polish Pierogis.
On my final night in Ukraine, we managed to do just that. In the greatest collaboration a Ukrainian kitchen has ever seen, we managed to fit eight Ukrainians, a Pole, a Canadian, a Kiwi and an American into a one bedroom flat. Over the span of five hours, we made three types of Vareniki, each with ingredients fresh from the host’s village. Do the math, and you’ll quickly calculate that we pushed boundaries that night: fitting a lot of people into a small space, a lot of cooking into a short time and a lot of delicious vareniki into our bellies.
By combining flour, eggs, water sunflower oil and a pinch of salt, we created a pasta dough. We then took turns kneading, rolling, flattening and filling with potatoes and chives, cheese, and cabbage. The final task was to fold the previously flat disks in half, squeezing each edge to secure the tasty guts and decorating the outsides with pinched patterns. Twelve of us took turns leaving our mark on dinner and by the end of craft hour, we were left with an impressive display. Craft hour in fact was much longer than that. We spent three hours in the kitchen, sipping on wine, samagon and water (of course!) and playing games of dance off piggy back rides.
Some of the girls’ Babushkas taught them to check doneness by waiting for individual dumplings to float to the top. They then grabbed an individual piece out of boiling water and broke it in half to see if the thin dough layer had cooked through. Once the batch was determined to have finished its time in the hot pot, we drained the dumplings and piled them into three serving bowls, creating layering of dumplings and butter. We sat down and ate until we could not eat any more, sharing stories in the typical Ukrainian, Russian, English banter we’d adopted during our time together.
Twelve friends from five countries, each filled with potatoes, chives, cheese, cabbage and a sprinkle of unforgettable craziness.
Interested in making your own Ukrainian dumplings? I’ve scoured the web and found this site to be the most comprehensive, photos and all: Get your RECIPE HERE! Let me know how it goes!