There may be no two people who value the potato more than Orysia and George Wozniak, proprietors of Taste of Ukraine restaurant, located downtown at Jasper Avenue and 122nd Street.
The couple, both former teachers now retired, grew up steeped in Ukrainian heritage, and have a deep appreciation for the versatility of the knobby bundle of starch that is a staple of the Ukrainian food culture.
The potato can be shredded, mashed, chopped, sliced, diced, grated, boiled, steamed, baked, fried and mashed -- all while retaining its core quality as a comfort food.
These different preparation techniques can result in vastly different experiences in the mouth.
"If you boil the potatoes first, and then fry them, or start with them raw and then fried -- these are two different tastes," says George.
In Ukraine, the potato can form a main course such as potato babka, a fluffy, cake-like dish that is baked in a bread pan with cheese and mushrooms and served in slices topped with a tomato or cream sauce.
Potatoes can also be made into sweets. A treat from the Ukraine region of Transcarpathia is a potato dough ball with a plum tucked inside, which is then boiled and fried in buttered bread crumbs.
Orysia points out there are at least six different Ukrainian words for potato pancake -- deruny, oladky, kartoplyanyky, zrazy, drachena and plyatzky -- depending on the region from which the pancake originates, and the method of cooking.
"At the end, it's still a potato pancake," she says, noting a scoop of sturgeon caviar on top elevates the humble disc to a gourmet nibble.
The Taste of Ukraine menu features a range of potato-based items, including pyrizhky, which is a bite-sized bun stuffed with potato, baked and covered with a dill cream sauce. But one of the most popular potato-based dishes at Taste of Ukraine is the pyrohy, also known as varenyky. (Don't, whatever you do, call it a "perogie," which the Wozniaks say isn't actually a real word, but is a Canadianized, somewhat slang version of proper term "pyrohy.")
At Taste of Ukraine, some 120 to 150 dozen of the tender dough balls stuffed with everything from mushroom to cheese to sour cherry and, of course, potato, are pinched off every week. Orysia and George still do a good deal of the cooking themselves.
Though potatoes are a key food at Taste of Ukraine, which opened in 2004, the Wozniaks have worked hard to create a sophisticated and wide-ranging dining experience at their restaurant. The atmosphere is cozy, the lighting dim and romantic.
"What we set out to do was to elevate Ukrainian food to a higher level and take that stigma of kiosk food away," says Orysia. "Ukrainian food gets a bad rap. But it's healthy. It's not artificial and it's all good fat."
Here is Orysia's recipe for a classic, potato-based Ukrainian dish.
VARENYKY, OR PYROHY
- 21/2 cups (625 mL) flour
- 1/2 teaspoon (2 mL) salt
- 1 egg
- 3/4 cup (170 mL) cold water
- 2 tablespoons (30 mL) vegetable oil
POTATO AND ONION FILLING
- 4 cups (1,000 mL) mashed potatoes
- 1 medium onion, diced and fried in 1/2 cup (115 mL) vegetable oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 medium onion and six slices chopped bacon (optional)
- 1/4 cup (50 mL) vegetable oil
To make dough, mix flour with salt. Make a well in the centre. Mix egg with water and oil and gradually add to flour. Mix well. Knead dough until smooth. An electric mixer with a dough hook may be used. Dough should be soft but not sticky.
Form a ball with the dough and let it stand in a tightly covered bowl at room temperature for one hour before using. Thinly roll out small sections of dough one at a time on a floured surface. Cut into rounds using a circle form cutter. (Using an empty soup can works well.)
FILLING: When cooled, mix potatoes, onion, salt and pepper.
ASSEMBLY: Place a teaspoon of filling onto the centre of the dough circle. Fold over to form a half circle. Pinch the edges to seal. Place pinched pouches on a floured tray and cover with a tea towel to prevent drying. Filled varenyky (pyrohy) can be frozen uncooked and bagged when frozen or they can be cooked immediately.
To cook, bring a pot of salted water to a boil and drop in a few varenyky at a time. Stir gently to avoid sticking. Continue boiling until varenyky rise to the top and puff out slightly (about 6 to 7 minutes). Remove and strain through a colander.
Place in a bowl and top with fried onions and bacon. Repeat with remaining varenyky. Keep the bowl covered and give it an occasional shake to prevent sticking. Serve with sour cream on the side.
HERE ARE TWO MORE OPTIONS FOR FILLINGS FOR YOUR PYROHY:
POTATO AND COTTAGE CHEESE FILLING
- 2 cups (500 mL) cold mashed potatoes
- 1 cup (250 mL) dry cottage cheese
- 1 tablespoon (15 mL) chopped onion
- 4 tablespoons (50 mL) butter
- salt and pepper to taste
Fry onion in butter. Cool. Mix potatoes with cheese. Add onion, salt and pepper. Mix well.
POTATO AND CHEDDAR CHEESE FILLING
- 2 cups (500 mL) hot mashed potatoes
- 1 cup (250 mL) grated cheddar cheese
- salt to taste
Mix grated cheese with hot mashed potatoes. Add salt. Cool mixture before using.