Carbo-loading, that quaint twentieth-century regimen, has fallen by the nutritional wayside. Starch makes us tired and fat, goes the conventional wisdom, and should be consumed in small doses, like TV quiz shows. Except in late winter, when wind-chill factors drive us to seek solid, satisfying comfort food like prehibernation bears at an all-you-can-eat buffet. For inspiration, we turn to cultures where “eating seasonally” doesn’t mean boycotting winter tomatoes so much as filling up on steaming, chewy, plump dumplings – in soups, stews, or solo. Not surprisingly, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are the birthplaces of some world-class dough specimens: the pierogi, knedliky, and pelmeni that are quintessential peasant food – unpretentious, filling, and cheap. With the aid of sour cream and sautéed onions, we explored the boiled and fried realms of Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, and Slovak dumplings and dough pockets, the stuffed stuff an underground gourmet’s dreams are made on.
On a quiet side street in the financial district, the two-table R.J. Max (55 Ann Street; 212-791-9800) caters to an office-lunch crowd with takeout roast-turkey sandwiches and Caesar salads. But interspersed throughout are full-flavored Eastern European daily specials like pojarski (ground-chicken patties), and Russian borscht served with savory beef pirozhki. If they’re available, sample the tender pelmeni ($6.75), hand-folded little chicken-and-pork dumplings that resemble tortellini. Usually found in soup, the pelmeni are native to Siberia, where they used to be stockpiled and frozen in snowbanks. These, thankfully, show no signs of freezer burn; their fresh taste is enhanced with garnishes of dill, vinegar, and sour cream.
When Czechoslovakia split into the Czech and Slovak republics, the rift was geo-gastronomic as much as political: The Czech Republic adjoins Poland and shares its obsession with dumplings. Slovakia, on the other hand, adjoins Hungary, ergo goulash. Milan’s (710 Fifth Avenue, near 22nd Street, Brooklyn; 718-788-7384), a mom-and-pop restaurant on the fringes of Green-Wood Cemetery, magnanimously offers both. “People come from Trenton for this,” says our waiter about the spicy Hungarian goulash ($6.10), one of three variations on the menu. We can see why: Chunks of tender beef nearly drown in a puddle of paprika-amped sauce. So that not a drop is wasted, the goulash comes with a healthy serving of knedle, dumplings made of soft-steamed slices of bread, perfect for sopping and mopping. The Slovak combination plate ($7.30), a beige-on-beige apotheosis of belly-busting starch, features husky potato-and-cheese pierogies, an oversize potato pancake, and – the pièce de résistance – a lardon-topped mound of halusky, a noodle-dumpling hybrid (think spaetzle) in a rich, sheep’s-milk-cheese sauce. Kraft macaroni and cheese seems low-cal in comparison.
All pierogi pursuits invariably lead to Greenpoint, where you’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant menu without them. We’re partial to the lumpy ones at Christina’s (853 Manhattan Avenue; 718-383-4382) of Manhattan Avenue – not to be confused with Christine’s of Manhattan – a cozy Polish-American coffee shop with red vinyl booths and wood-veneer tabletops. Light-footed waitresses pace the linoleum floor slinging babka French toast and eggs with kielbasa, and – mostly – plates of pierogi to a mixed crowd of chatty locals and interlopers. The half-moons of supple dough encase toothsome cabbage and mushroom, cheese and potato, or meat fillings; order the combination plate ($4.25) to cover all four food groups.
Some blocks away, Pod Wierchami (119 Nassau Avenue; 718-383-0670) attracts a distinctly different clientele: single working men on weeknights hunched over their plates territorially, forgoing conversation for fast-paced uninterrupted eating. For them, this is a home away from home – if home is decorated like a hunting lodge, with picnic tables, crossbows, and a mounted deer head wearing a harlequin mask. The robust, authentic Polish home cooking is cheap and satisfying and served cafeteria-style. Excellent borscht is $1.50; seven oversize, overstuffed pierogi made from scratch are $3.80. Included in the price is a glass of compot (a room-temp fruit drink) and a trip to the makeshift “salad bar,” which comprises pickled cucumbers and two kinds of coleslaw. Best of all is pyzy z miesem ($4.50), three potato dumplings the size of souvenir footballs, stuffed with ground pork – which are both lighter than they look and much lighter than the men’s-club mood.
The East Village has long been an epicenter of unadulterated Eastern European soul food, so traditionalists raised a stink when Veselka (144 Second Avenue; 212-228-9682) treated itself to a makeover a few years ago after nearly half a century of letting itself go. And although there’s a whiff of West 57th Street about the bigger, brighter version of this landmark café (souvenir plates and mugs are available to commemorate your blintzes), the original motto – “traditional Ukrainian cooking in a nontraditional setting” – still stands. The crowd hasn’t changed. Take our counter- mate on a recent visit. He’s a Buddhist monk in training, so he’s on a one-meal-a-day diet, we learn, although he was brought up in an Italian family in Jersey, “which was more like ten meals a day.” All of which seems like a testimonial to Veselka’s hefty portions of hearty dishes (borscht, bigos, potato pancakes, goulash). The plump little pierogi are still made by hand and served boiled or fried with a variety of fresh, tasty fillings. Order the pierogi plate ($5.95 for seven) to sample all of the fillings (potato, sweet potato, farmer’s cheese, spinach and cheese, meat, and sauerkraut and mushroom), a good deal for those on a one-meal-a-day diet.
For pierogi in an even less traditional setting (for Alphabet City, at least), go to Leshko’s (111 Avenue A; 212-777-2111), the former Ukrainian coffee shop that used to be even bleaker than the old Veselka. The design team that created Moomba and Veruka have given Leshko’s a complete overhaul: a face-lift, a tummy tuck, and lots of lipo, whereas Veselka only got the equivalent of a daytime-talk-show makeover. The new look (kind of a cool interpretation of Greg Brady’s attic bachelor pad) and creatively prepared American comfort food attract a hip, good-looking crowd, so you won’t mind being squeezed into a table with little room to spare, at least until your neighbor tries to cross his legs and repeatedly knees you in the elbow. Almost nothing of the old Leshko’s remains – except for the name and the pierogi ($5.95). And even that formerly humble dish is barely recognizable: Chef Bruce Barnes has considerably jazzed-up his Ukrainian grandmother’s recipe. He stuffs his with fluffy potatoes and minced onion, lightly sautés them to a crisp golden brown, and serves them on an ingeniously crunchy bed of fennel, caramelized leeks, and sautéed mushrooms. The crowning touch: a drizzle of truffle oil, a dollop of crème fraîche, and a dusting of chives. Now, if only he would tackle our grandmother’s kreplach.