It’s a well-known fact that Thanksgiving is one of the most prolific food holidays of the year. It’s the time of year when we in the cooking community become sources of light and guidance to our non-culinarily-inclined friends who call and text us with cooking emergencies, questions about what wine to pair with what dish, and for advice on how to spruce up boring side dishes. It is our time to shine! So what I’m about to say might may seem odd and counter-intuitive: I have no idea how to cook a true Thanksgiving dinner.
I grew up in a very Russian household. Our Thanksgiving table was made up of salted fish, smoked meats, caviar, cold salads, and pickled herring. It wasn’t until my twin sister and I were at the tail end of high school that we began incorporating American classics like green bean casserole and baked mac n cheese at our Thanksgiving dinners and by the way I was today years old when I learned mac n cheese is, in fact, NOT a Thanksgiving food? Not really sure what it is for then but it’s cheese and carbs and i’ll eat it 365 days of the year. We longed to feel like everyone else, and my mom obliged.
Over the years, this very American holiday became important to my very Russian family. It just so happens that November 30 is the anniversary of my parents’ arrival in America - last year marked 30 years. My parents are so proud to be American citizens, and I am SO grateful I got to grow up in suburban Ohio and not post-Soviet Ukraine. I know Thanksgiving is polarizing (like so many American holidays these days, and for good reason) but I look at this holiday as a chance to reflect .
My grandpa took a particular liking to Thanksgiving. I think he really loved the convivial nature of the holiday; seeing so many generations of his family eating, laughing and drinking around him. It always felt bittersweet to me: this man lost his entire family in the Holocaust - 5 brothers and sisters, both parents - so I’m sure seeing all of us around him felt a bit like appreciating the flowers that grew after a terrible rainstorm. Beacons of hope but also reminders of the past.
He made a giant turkey every single year. As with everything he made, it absolutely wreaked of garlic in the best possible way. It was smoky, salty and delicious, stuffed with rice and dried fruits. It was perfect.
November 2016 was the last time he ever made turkey for us. He passed away the following September. I still don’t know how to make a turkey, and the only traditional recipes I do know I’ve picked up from friends and roommates over the years. But I love my weird, mish-mashed, Russian-American Thanksgiving.
In keeping with that theme, I’m providing a Thanksgiving-ified version of my Babushka Lola’s famous potato vareniki. They’re filled with sweet potato and fried onions, and I topped them off with salted maple butter and fried sage.
These make a perfect app or side dish and they can be made as far in advance as you’d like - just pop them in the freezer and boil from frozen.
WHAT YOU NEED
2 cups flour
1/4 cup kefir, buttermilk, or equal parts sour cream mixed with milk
2 tbsp melted butter
Pinch of salt
3-medium sized sweet potatoes
1 large white or yellow onion, diced
4 tbsp butter
Salt + pepper to taste
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
2 tsp maple syrup (or to taste)
½ tsp salt (or to taste)
WHAT YOU DO
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the sweet potatoes and cook until they can be easily pierced with a fork.
Take this time to get your fried onions going: add 4 tablespooons of butter to a large skillet on med-low heat. Once it melts add the diced onions, stirring frequently. If they’re starting to burn turn the heat down. You can cook as long as you want but you only *need* to cook them until they soften and become opaque.
While the potatoes are boiling and the onions are frying, make your vareniki dough: add flour + salt to a large mixing bowl. Then combine the wet ingredients, add to the mixing bowl with flour, and stir until a shaggy dough forms. Transfer the shaggy dough to a floured work surface and knead for 5-10 minutes until it becomes smooth. Wrap in plastic and set aside.
Once the potatoes are sufficiently boiled, drain and peel them without burning the living shit out of your hands. Mash. Add the onions once they’re your preferred shade of golden-brown (or opaque white, whatever). Mix everything and season to taste.
Before actually folding the vareniki, let’s make our topping:
Combine butter, maple syrup, and salt. Stir until everything is mixed thoroughly. Store in a small container and refrigerate until ready to use.
Okay, now it’s finally time to make the vareniki!
Work with ½ of the dough at a time making sure to replace the rest in plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out.
On a floured work surface, roll out the dough using a rolling pin or pasta machine unit it’s thin (but not see-through). For guidance on this process see my post on rolling out pasta dough linked here.
Set up your work station with a floured sheet pan, a bowl of filling + teaspoon, and either a circular sugar cookie cutter or a mug/glass.
Use your circular object of choice, make round cut-outs in the dough. Add about 1 tsp of filling to the center and pinch the varenik closed into a half moon shape. If you’re having trouble making the dough stick together, just dab a little water around half the outer edge. To make the indentation pattern in my photo, press your fingers around the outer edge of the half moon.
Place the finished vareniki on a floured sheet pan and repeat until you run out of dough or filling.
If you’d like to garnish with fried sage like I did, simply fry up the sage in a small amount of butter for 2-3 minutes. Remove the leaves from the pan using a slotted spoon and place them on a plate lined with paper towel. Set aside until ready to use.
Putting it all together:
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Boil the vareniki for 3-5 minutes or until they float. Use a colander or spider strainer to strain the vareniki and toss them in a bowl with a nub of butter so they don’t stick together.
Plate, top with salted maple butter + fried sage leaves, serve!