A dumpling by any other name

The first time I tried this Russian staple, it was as if I had grown up eating it.

Only a handful of dishes are universal in their appeal, providing "a taste of home" even if we have never sampled that food before. Dumplings are high on this list, whether they're Jewish kreplach, Chinese won-ton soup, or Italian tortellini. Every region and ethnic group seems to have its own special variation on dumpling soup.

Add pelmeni soup to that list. The first time I tried this Russian staple, it was perfectly familiar to me, as if I had grown up eating it. Although my Russian heritage is limited, it was as if the taste were inherited from distant relatives and an affection for the dish lay dormant, waiting to be awakened with the first spoonful.

The first time I tried pelmeni soup was in a fast-food restaurant almost hidden in the warren of streets surrounding New York's financial district. The name of the restaurant - Blini Hut - drew me in. I was expecting little more than a greasy sandwich and a good chuckle. The menu indeed made me smile: In addition to fried chicken and salmon pojarsky, the "value meal" menu offered beautifully un-Americanized chicken Kiev, borscht, and blini with waxy salmon caviar, all bargain priced around $5.

I ordered a combo of chicken Kiev, pelmeni soup, and a small hard roll. The chicken Kiev was an oval-shaped, fried butter bomb, which tasted rich and greasy. I nibbled at the hard roll to clear my palate and pried the top off the paper cup of pelmeni soup.

The first waft was permeated with the fragrance of the fresh dill floating atop the chicken consommé. My spoon parted the curtain of green, retrieving a round pelmeni dumpling, fluted at the edges and just the right size to fit in the bowl of my plastic soup spoon. It had a distinctive flavor - equal parts comforting and exotic.

I returned every week to nourish my body and soul on pelmeni soup - until the day that Blini Hut suddenly and quietly closed its doors.

Pelmeni-less and bereft, I searched for a cookbook with an authentic recipe so I could make my own. Eventually, I found it in an out-of-print, secondhand copy of a book by Kira Petrovskaya that's simply called "Russian Cookbook." The chicken stock in her recipe is distinctive. Instead of immersing chicken and vegetables in water, she advises first browning the vegetables in butter, to "lock in the vegetable juices" and to give the stock a better color.

Petrovskaya's recipe is titled "Pelmeny Siberian," so called because Siberians would carry sackfuls of these little meat dumplings to tide them over as they traveled the great distances between villages, a journey that often took several days without ever coming to a place of habitation, she says. Consider them an early form of convenience food since they were transported frozen and thawed in boiling water.

The dough is a basic flour-egg-water mixture, filled with a combination of two kinds of meat for stuffing - beef and pork, or veal and pork - seasoned with onions, salt, and pepper. Once filled and pinched firmly shut, the dumpling first is cooked in plain boiling water for a few minutes, and then scooped out and served in hot bouillon or consommé.

This double-dipping method ensures that the consommé will not become cloudy from the dumpling dough.

Although her recipe serves four to six people, "if you have Russians for dinner, you'd better double or triple the recipe," Petrovskaya advises. "The minimum that a good, red-blooded Russian would require is one dozen of pelmeny, and I have known Russians who could eat two or three dozen pelmeny at one sitting."

Although I now can make my own pelmeni soup, perhaps the best specimens outside of Mother Russia are to be found in the Russian community ofBrighton Beach in Brooklyn, N.Y.

I took a recent trip there with a group of friends. We bypassed the lavish banquet halls that line the boardwalk and sat down to a meal at a small, nondescript restaurant. There we devoured Ukrainian borscht, eggplant "caviar," blintzes served with small silver bowls of sour cream, and, of course, bowls of pelmeni soup.

We had some pelmeni novices among our group. I couldn't help but smile as Joe, an epicure of Italian descent, tried his first spoonful.

"Mmmmm," he crooned. "Tortellini in brodo" (broth).

Pelmeni soup

The pelmeni dumplings cook in salted boiling water, not the consommé in which they are ultimately served. This prevents the soup from becoming cloudy. The dumplings also can be prepared ahead of time, frozen, and warmed up later in the consommé before serving.

1/3 pound ground beef
1/3 pound ground pork
1 large onion, finely chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 egg
1/2 cup water
2 cups all-purpose flour
5 cups chicken stock or consommé
Chopped fresh dill (for garnish)

First, prepare the filling. Combine the ground meats, onion, and salt and pepper in a mixing bowl. Blend well. Set aside.

In another bowl, beat the egg slightly and stir in the water. Add the flour gradually, along with a dash of salt. Knead together into an elastic dough.

On a floured surface, roll the dough thinly and cut 2-inch circles in it using a glass or cookie cutter.

Spoon a small ball of filling (about 1/2 measuring teaspoon) into the center of each circle, and fold the dough over into a half-moon shape. Pinch together firmly to seal the edges of the dough.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pelmeni in the water for about 10 minutes, or until the dumplings rise to the surface. Drain.

While the dumplings are cooking, heat the chicken broth or consommé in a saucepan.

To serve, spoon the pelmeni dumplings into soup bowls and cover with hot consommé. Garnish with fresh dill.

Serves 4 to 6 people.

- Adapted from Kira Petrovskaya's 'Russian Cookbook.'

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