Pockets of flavor

Evelyn Leighfield

Evelyn Leighfield and her husband, Butch, are snowbirds from Massachusetts who have wintered with their Lowcountry family for nearly a dozen years.

The time is drawing near for them to return again to Adams, a town of 8,000 people nestled in a valley of the Berkshire Mountains.

Like many American families, their children are a diaspora of the 20th century. While Evelyn, a second-generation Polish American, and Butch grew up and stayed in Adams, their offspring scattered. Son Tod Leighfield, his wife, Tamala, and their children, Zachary and Oscar, have put down roots on Johns Island. Tod's career is tied to the coast as a marine scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at Fort Johnson.

Their other son, Jed, and his wife live outside Boston.

While here, Butch and Evelyn do eat out often and enjoy local events, but they do much more than take an extended vacation, helping with the care of their grandchildren, running errands and fixing things. Every visit also is sure to include a piece of "back home" when Evelyn makes traditional pierogi, edible ambassadors of her European ancestry.

Immigrants made Adams primarily a Polish, then French, enclave. Poles came to work in the textile mills in the late 1800s, and the town eventually became home to industry giants Berkshire Hathaway and Schumacher/Waverly. One of Evelyn's grandmothers worked at the mill as a cotton "picker," a person who pulled nubs off the fabrics. Evelyn still has her tools.

In those days, the extended family lived close by. Their lives were heavily influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, and Evelyn's family lived across the street from St. Stanislaus Kostka Church. Parishioners have been in the news for more than a year since appealing a decision by the diocese to close St. Stan's, which was built in 1905 by Polish immigrants.

Evelyn still cooks from a well-worn edition of the old church cookbook, "Favorite Recipes Jubilee Cookbook." It bears traditional Polish specialties such as golabki (stuffed cabbage rolls), kapusta (pork and cabbage) and banianka (pumpkin soup).

"Very simple, basic foods," says Evelyn. "It's what they could afford."

Pierogi, filled dumplings akin to Italian ravioli or Asian potstickers, were a given at Easter and Christmas, the two biggest holidays of the year. Both holidays were packed with Polish food, Evelyn says. At Easter, the priest would even come to the house and bless the food.

Pierogi were eaten at other times, not every day, but "whenever someone felt like making them," she says with a knowing smile. And watching her grandmother, Evelyn learned the way.

"I just saw her do it, so it was just normal for me to pick it up. It was just something you did."

Food has been a passion for Evelyn, personally and professionally. She loves to cook and, with degrees in business and hotel/restaurant management, worked as director of nutritional services for a nursing home.

She says pierogi can be made sweet or savory, depending on the filling. The dough might encase blueberries, strawberries, apples or prunes and be served with sour cream. Cabbage, sauerkraut, mushroom, onion, potato, cheese, meat or combinations thereof are common on the savory side.

Either way, pierogi are boiled for about 10 minutes, then drained and buttered. They can be eaten as is or browned in a pan before serving, as Evelyn prefers.

They do take a bit of time, but the payback is worth it, she says, especially if one is making a large batch. Kids usually like them and adults gobble them up. Pierogi freeze well, too.

If stuffing pierogi seems like too much work, there's always "lazy pierogi." The dough is cut into noodles and the cabbage and cheese fillings become toppings instead.

Better yet, Evelyn suggests, spread the labor over two days. Make the fillings and dough the day before wrapping them into dumplings.

Evelyn doesn't think either one of her sons is likely to carry on the tradition -- Tod has made them only a couple of times. "They like the Polish eating but not the cooking," she says with a laugh.

Tod confirms that he loves his Mom's cooking, pierogi included, but says his memories revolve "more around the generalized ethnicity" of the food rather than a single item.

His hometown "had a Polish butcher that smoked his own kielbasa, a Polish bakery, among other businesses, all just on my short walk to my grammar school two blocks away from home. I think I associate the smells of the bakery and the butcher's smokehouse more with the Polish food experience."

He also says that while his suburban life doesn't allow frequent preparation of such foods, he does feel it's important to pass on your family's version of ethnic dishes to the next generation.

"Just this past December, Tamala prepared her version of a Swedish Christmas Eve dinner that her family celebrates. I definitely think that it is important to have my children experience all kinds of food ... so they can be 'citizens of the world.' "

They're too young now, but maybe Zachary and Oscar will one day want to continue the culinary heritage of their grandparents, whom they call Babci ("Bob-chi") and Dziadziu ("Jah-ju") in the Polish way.

Perhaps they will plant a new seed for pierogi in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, just like their great-great-grandmothers did in the mountains of Massachusetts.

Teresa Taylor is the food editor. Reach her at food@postandcourier.com.

Makes about 24 pierogi

Ingredients

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 egg

1/2 cup lukewarm water

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons melted butter

Directions

Sift flour into a bowl. Make a well in the flour, add egg, lukewarm water, salt and melted butter. Using your hands or a wooden spoon, begin to incorporate flour into the liquid. Working quickly and with a light touch, try to pick up all the flour into the dough.

Knead dough for a few minutes by folding, pushing it outward and folding again. Let dough rest for 1/2 hour, covered. (Always keep the dough covered as it has a tendency to dry out; dry dough does not seal well.) Knead the dough again until smooth. The dough should be soft and pliable, not too stiff, as it will make for more tender pierogi.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil.

Divide dough in half and roll out to 1/8-inch thickness on a floured surface. Cut circles with a cup or glass, 2 to 2 1/2 inches in diameter. Stretch circles of dough out a bit, then fold in half, like a taco, to create a pocket for the filling. Fill with about a tablespoon of your filling of choice. Press edges together tightly, making sure the seal is leakproof and there are no holes in the dough on either side of the dumpling.

Boil the pierogi in batches, about 10 at a time. Drop gently into the water, and stir gently to make sure none sticks to the bottom of the pan. When they float to the top, cook at a slow boil for 10 minutes. (A too rapid boil will make them fall apart.) Change the water and bring to a boil again if it becomes too floury or if a pierog breaks apart.

Remove with slotted spoon into a colander placed in a shallow bowl or pot. Rinse very lightly with cold water, breaking up the water's flow with your fingers. Drain and place in a serving dish. Baste with additional melted butter. Serve as is or fry in a little hot butter in a skillet until lightly browned on both sides.

If cooking several batches that are to be fried, stack the cooked, drained and buttered pierogi in a large serving dish or pan in single layers separated by sheets of plastic wrap until ready to be fried.

For 1-2 batches of pierogi dough

Ingredients

1 head of cabbage

1 (14-ounce) can sauerkraut

Salt and pepper

1 stick butter

1 large onion, chopped

Directions

Shred cabbage. Rinse sauerkraut. Combine both in cooking pot, add water to cover and salt to taste. Cook until tender but do not overcook. Drain and cool. Squeeze cabbage and sauerkraut with hands until almost dry and chop finely.

Melt butter in frying pan, add chopped onion and fry until golden brown. Add chopped cabbage, and salt and pepper to taste. Fry on low heat, adding more butter if needed, 15-20 minutes. Put in bowl and cover when cool. Filling must be completely cooled before using.

For 1-2 batches of pierogi dough

Ingredients

1 pound dry cottage or farmer's cheese

2 medium potatoes, cooked and mashed

1 egg yolk

Small onion, chopped fine and fried in butter

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Put cheese through sieve or grinder. Add cooled mashed potatoes, egg yolk, onion, and salt and pepper to taste.