Thursday, March 1, 2012

[Edible Wow] Pierogi in Metro Detroit

When the Dodge brothers opened their Dodge Main automotive assembly plant in Hamtramck Township in 1914, the area was little more than a sleepy community of French and German farmers. When the call for work went out at the plant, Polish immigrants descended upon this tiny township (and later fought for it to be recognized as its own city). This two-square-mile area was built to accommodate tens of thousands of immigrant factory workers, resulting in densely packed housing with family homes crammed into 30-foot lots. At its peak in 1930, the city had 56,000 people in it, 83% of which were Polish.

The Polish immigrants brought with them their own cultural traditions, and soon Hamtramck was filled with hundreds of bars, beer gardens, Polish restaurants, Old-World bakeries and sausage shops.

Polish cuisine is rooted in the rich farming fields of Poland where potatoes, cabbage and beets thrived. Thus much of what we know as traditional Polish food is heavy with these ingredients: golabki (stuffed cabbage), cabbage soup and stew, sauerkraut (pickled cabbage), beet soups, potato dumplings, potato pancakes, and potato and cheese pierogi are all staples of a traditional Polish diet.

But of all the hearty, wholesome, rib-sticking dishes that comprise Polish cuisine, there are perhaps none so beloved or as culturally significant as pierogi. Pierogi are boiled, baked or fried half-circular dumplings of unleavened dough stuffed with a variety of ingredients such as mashed potatoes, farmer’s cheese, ground meat, sauerkraut, and fruit, and can be anything from savory to sweet to spicy.

Pierogi are made by rolling the dough flat and cutting it into circles using a cup or drinking glass. The filling is placed in the middle and the dough is folded over in half to create the distinctive half-circle shape. The pierogi are then boiled, then are often fried or baked in butter. For sweet pierogi (made with farmer’s cheese, a white curd cheese), a popular accompaniment is sour cream – which is also a secret ingredient to make lighter, richer dough. A simple savory serving method can be melted butter, and occasionally pierogi is garnished with fried bacon, onions or mushrooms, which are some of the ingredients for traditional fillings. Dessert pierogi are often served with apple sauce. In North America, one of the most popular filling varieties is cooked potatoes, farmer’s cheese and stir-fried onion, though in Poland forcemeat, sauerkraut and mushrooms are the most traditional and preferred preparations.

Pierogi are an indelible part of Polish culture. While their origins are as a peasant food, pierogi became widely popular with the land owners and nobility as well, eventually becoming a national food of Poland. Different kinds of pierogi were made to celebrate different holidays, such as the vegetarian varieties with sauerkraut and dried wild mushrooms which were served for Christmas Eve supper (when no meat was allowed). Now a wide variety of different flavors of pierogi are readily available year-round, and there are dozens of restaurants and markets in the metro Detroit area which offer fresh, homemade pierogi for you to enjoy.

If you are uninitiated in the wonderful world of pierogi, you simply must start in the city of Hamtramck, which once boasted the second-largest ethnic Polish community in the country after Chicago (Michigan still ranks third in the country for largest number of citizens of Polish ancestry). There are literally dozens of different restaurants and markets to choose from, but a good place to start is Polonia Restaurant, made infamous two years ago when Anthony Bourdain filmed a segment of his Travel Channel show “No Reservations” there. Polonia was founded in 1929 and still serves up the same warm, hearty, heaping homemade meals you would expect to be served in an old Polish grandmother’s kitchen (it even looks the part). Afterwards, stop by Srodek’s Campau Quality Sausage market and pick up one of their 13 different kinds of homemade pierogi to take home, including savory favorites and a variety of dessert flavors.

But Hamtramck isn’t quite the epicenter of Polish culture that it once was, and as Polish Americans have moved into the northern suburbs the new heart of the Polish community can be found in Troy. The American Polish Cultural Center at Maple Rd. and Dequindre is home to a number of Polish American organizations such as the National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame, as well as an expansive banquet hall and restaurant. As far as heritage goes, the history of the building – which used to be an architectural museum and still has many antiques left from that time – can’t be beat; neither can the food. “I am from Poland, I grew up eating Polish food, I’m not just saying this because I work here – the food is great,” says General Manager Margaret Wojciechowski, a little shyly. Their pierogi are served in the banquet hall as well as the attached Wawel Restaurant and are also available to purchase frozen. They are made from scratch by hand by a kitchen team all originally from Poland with a strong background in Polish cooking, in traditional flavors like Farmers’ cheese, cheese and potato, kraut, meat, and mushroom (around the holidays). Although located in the “Polish corner” of Troy (with the Polish Market across the street, a Polish medical center next door and a Polish credit union nearby), the food at Wawel attracts ethnically diverse customers from around the area: Indian, Filipino, Chinese, German. “The food is the biggest catch here,” Margaret says humbly. “People really like it.” The food is not only the biggest catch; it’s also how the Center first began making money before it grew into the restaurant and banquet facility it is now. They began by making and selling pierogi, which enabled them to grow and expand the Center as they introduced more people in the area to authentic Polish cuisine and it became increasingly popular.

Despite the growing popularity of traditional Polish food, “A lot of people still don’t know what pierogi is,” says Kim Stricker, owner and “Chief Pierogi Maker” of People’s Pierogi Collective. The Collective – so named because of the collaborative nature of the business, from its initial inception with family and friends pitching in with ideas to the way in which customers are encouraged for their input on new pierogi flavors – just launched last June and began as a simple pierogi cart in Eastern Market. “There was a need for Polish food that just wasn’t down there,” Stricker says. “It’s been a lot of fun introducing people to Polish food in general.”

Every year metro Detroit sees a newly trendy cuisine emerge. Sometimes that trend reflects a growing national popularity (last year’s barrage of upscale BBQ); sometimes it is unique to our area (the great crepe crusade of 2009). 2011 is still young but it looks like pierogi are in a prime position to contend for the “it” food of the year, thanks in large part to of-the-moment hotspots like Michael Symon’s Roast serving up a locally-lauded beef cheek pierogi, and accessible, youth-oriented start-ups like the People’s Pierogi Collective. With trendy imaging modeled after Kim’s grandmother (and designed by Kim’s graphic artist friend) and a penchant for experimentation by putting a modern spin on traditional fillings (think: Breakfast Pierogi made with scrambled eggs and bacon, Peanut Butter and Jelly Pierogi made with peanut butter and strawberries, and Sweet Potato Pierogi), the People’s Pierogi Collective signifies the transition from Old World to new.

“People are looking for more traditional and wholesome food,” Kim responds when asked why pierogi are suddenly becoming so popular with the trend-driven “foodie” crowd. “They’re a very nostalgic food for a lot of people around here … trendy food right now is anything that’s natural that has a homemade feel to it, and people really enjoy the cultural experience that goes along with it.”

Though PPC is not even a year old, grocery chains have approached Kim about carrying a line, and she has already had to face the challenges of growing more quickly than she could have anticipated. With a partnership with Detroit nonprofit organizations SHAR and RecoveryPark, PPC will be able to grow its production while still maintaining its ethos of offering fresh and homemade food made with simple, locally-sourced ingredients. This partnership also shows further “collaborative” efforts by showing a commitment to community outreach and involvement via urban agriculture and rehabilitative therapy. In the spring there will be two more carts roving Southeastern Michigan, and PPC’s products will also be available in Whole Foods and Holiday Market. Kim also hopes to launch online ordering soon.

While pierogi are a specific cultural cuisine with deep traditions very important to people of Polish heritage (particularly in metro Detroit), they are also a food with tremendous cross-cultural appeal with their hearty yet simple and accessible flavors hearkening back to homemade culinary customs. As Kim notes, “It’s about wholesome food; who doesn’t want that?”

Special thanks to Greg Kowalski, President of the Hamtramck Historic Commission, for historical background on Polish immigrants and the city of Hamtramck.

Breakfast Pierogies (recipe from Kim Stricker of the People's Pierogi Collective)

4 egg yolks
1 whole egg
1 tsp salt
2 cups water
6 cups of flour, plus more if needed

Beat eggs. Then add salt and water. Mix with flour to form a soft dough (not sticky). Roll out thin (like a penny). Cut into circles (3 ½”).

Scrambled Eggs – Well done and broken into small pieces with a fork
Bacon – Crispy, crumbled bacon
Shredded cheese – Cheddar, etc.

Fill sparingly – equal parts egg bacon and cheese). Moisten around the edges with egg white, fold and crimp edges with fingers or a floured fork.

Drop in boiling water a few at a time for 8 minutes. Remove and drain with cold water. Coat with olive oil to prevent sticking.

Sprinkle fried pierogies with sour cream and shredded cheese.