By Thomas Swick
City & Shore PRIME
At the door of the modest Oakland Park house you are greeted like an old friend by the cheerful, sprightly Halina Zulawinska. She leads you through the kitchen and seats you at her table. She pours you a glass of wine, in a crystal glass. She has recently arrived home from her aerobics class, and is still infused with energy. Or perhaps she’s always this bustling.
Pani Halina (to use the all-purpose Polish title for a woman) talks while she prepares your treat. In addition to aerobics, she also does tai chi twice a week, followed by yoga, at the community center in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea. She may be one of the few octogenarians in the world who makes pierogis after aerobics.
Pierogis are the Polish equivalent of Italian ravioli or Chinese dumplings: stuffed pockets of folded dough. The difference being that in those cuisines the dish is one of many specialties (spaghetti, Peking duck), while for Polish cooking it is the defining one. When you think of Polish food you think of pierogis, in the same way that you think of poutine when you think of Québec.
Like all dumplings, pierogis are a time-consuming delicacy: making the dough, rolling it, cutting it and – before folding it – cooking the foods that go inside. In Poland, the three most common fillings are ground meat, sauerkraut and mashed potato with cheese. This last type are called “Ruskie” (“Russian”) and during the Cold War they gave rise to a joke in Poland: A server in a milk bar inquires, “Who asked for the Russians?” and a customer quips: “Nobody. They came all by themselves.”
Pani Halina’s Ruskie are delivered by the chef. For anyone who is used to buying frozen pierogis at the supermarket, they are a revelation. For one, they are smaller, lighter, more delicate looking. And they have no uniform, mass-produced shape; like snowflakes, each one is different, signaling the hand of a human in its creation. Small bits of bacon speckle their tops.
In Poland, in the old days, aunts and grandmothers would gather in kitchens to make pierogis; it was a communal, gossipy labor. In Oakland Park, Pani Halina works alone, sometimes making 200 in one go. You almost get the feeling that helpers would only get in her way. She uses fresh, organic ingredients – cabbage, potatoes, farmer’s cheese – and she boils them just the way her mother did back in Krakow. The only difference is that she uses Poland Spring water (which she considers the purest, a belief helped along, perhaps in part, by the name).
Taking your first bite, you discover the other thing that elevates Pani Halina’s pierogis above the store-bought kind, and pretty much any others you’ve ever eaten: the dough. It is thinner, softer, not at all clammy; in your mouth it doesn’t feel like a casing for the potato and cheese but a natural extension of them. It is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Every once in a while a bacon bit gives a salty crispness to the cushiony goodness.
Pani Halina watches with immense satisfaction as you eat. A healthy eater, she doesn’t make pierogis all that often – which is why they’re a treat – and when she does, she gives them to friends. One, Agnieszka, sits at the table with you. But somehow you have gotten all the pierogis.
“We celebrate Christmas here,” Agnieszka says, “Easter. Pani Halina is like family.”
Pani Halina worked as a cosmetician in Krakow until her husband died. Then, at the age of 54, she picked up and moved to the United States. Just like that, she left her old life behind, and started anew.
She spent a year in Indiana, learning English, before moving to Fort Lauderdale. It is a long way from Krakow, the elegant city of churches and poets. She tries to return every year, but is happy to come back to Florida. “In Poland,” she says, as if channeling Yogi Berra, “people my age are dead.”
Her youthful spirit seems at home in the U.S. “Here, older people try to do new things,” she says. “They don’t think that they are old.”
Perhaps it’s a natural byproduct of our national, positive mindset. If the young all think that they are great, why can’t the old think that they are young?
Pani Halina is as focused on healthy living as any good American. She reads medical books. She eats very little meat, though she’ll buy the occasional turkey leg. She consumes lots of vegetables (organic, of course) and fruits (sometimes putting them into pierogis, as Poles do, especially in summer, when fruits were traditionally available). She buys organic, multi-grain bread. She’ll warn you about the dangers of putting toxins into your body. She goes to her bedroom and brings back a book, which she refers to again and again: The Green Pharmacy.
You place it on the table, next to your plate now nearly bereft of pierogis. The table becomes like the house, and its occupant – an unlikely but congenial mélange of Poland and America. Pani Halina says that she sometimes makes naleśniki (thin, delicate pancakes) and serves them with mango sauce at potlucks at the community center. She’ll be happy to give you the recipe.
When you get up to leave, she scurries to the freezer and pulls out a bag of pierogis for you to take home. These, she says enthusiastically, are made with sauerkraut.
POTATO & CHEESE PIEROGIS
For the dough
1½ lbs. of white flour
1 egg, 2 egg yolks
1 cup (approximately) of very hot water with a dash of salt
For the filling
2 lbs. of potatoes
10 oz. of farmer’s cheese (not too wet)
1 onion (cubed)
1 tb. of butter
½ tsp. of salt and pepper to taste
1. Peel the potatoes and boil them till they’re not too soft, then cool them.
2. In a bowl, mash the potatoes with the cheese, onion, butter, pepper and salt.
1. Mix half of the flour in a bowl with the hot water, then wait for it to cool.
2. Add the eggs, a dash of salt and most of the rest of the flour, saving some to put under the dough. Knead it for about five minutes until it’s soft.
3. Roll out the dough with some flour under it (to prevent sticking). It should be thin. Keep adding flour as needed.
4. With a cookie cutter or a glass, cut the dough in circles of approximately 3 inches.
5. Put a tsp. of filling on each, fold it in half and close it well with your fingers.
6. Boil water and put the pierogis in for 2 to 3 minutes – until they rise to the surface. Then remove them and put them on a plate. (They can also be fried in a pan.)
7. Optional: While the water is boiling, fry bacon or butter in a pan. Then pour over the pierogis when they are ready.