Eastern European cuisine: No longer just for peasants

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Feb. 2, 2012, 11:11 p.m. | Food & Nightclubs — by Natalia A. Feduschak

A plate of tasty varenyky.

Natalia A. Feduschak

TORONTO – Pyrohy, those mouth-watering dumplings stuffed with potato, cabbage and mushrooms, are gradually making the transition from peasant staple to high cuisine.

From hip cafes to chic restaurants, Eastern European food is coming into its own. Once deemed principally fare for peasants, leading chefs in the West today are experimenting with Eastern European food and raising it to a high art form.

“I like to take peasant food from the home country and elevate it,” said Anne Yarymowich, executive chef at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Frank Restaurant, who frequently features Eastern European foods on her menu. “It’s peasant cuisine. There’s no shame in that.”

Heavy, simple and filling, Eastern European food is reflective of the cultures of the people who inhabit this vast territory – Ukrainians, Hungarians, Jews, Poles and others.

Historically, Eastern European dishes have been comprised of foodstuffs that are staples in the region – cabbage, beets, grains, potatoes – and born out of the necessity to keep stomachs full during a hard day’s work rather than creating culinary delights.

Yet chefs like Yarymowich are changing the way the ultimate peasant food is viewed.

Experimenting with traditional Eastern European recipes, she is borrowing from high cuisine to create dishes that may be traditional in form, but heightened in taste and style.

“As human beings, we are a conglomerate of all that has formed us,” Yarymowich, a Ukrainian-Canadian who is considered by many of her colleagues to be one of the best chefs in Toronto, said of the dishes she creates.

“Being a part of the Ukrainian community was a significant part of my upbringing that I’m proud of.”

As a youth, Yarymowich intently listened to and learned from the culinary debates that took place between women who cooked for functions in the basement of her local church in Montreal, where she was raised.
Anne Yarymowich

An important influence on her later culinary creations was spending time in her mother’s kitchen, which was “a very integral part of our growing up.”

“It formed how I think about cooking,” she said. “We had a large family of six kids. My mother encouraged us to help in the kitchen.”

Living for a period in Germany also gave her an appreciation of other culinary cultures.

Yarymowich said one cookbook she references frequently is Savella Stechishin’s “Traditional Ukrainian Cookery.”

Originally published in 1957, it is a compilation of recipes that builds on those brought to Canada by refugees from Ukraine. In it, Stechishin tackles everything from how to make stuffed mushrooms to the ultimate topic that divides friends – how to properly prepare dough for dumplings known as pyrohy.

Smiling, Yarymowich admitted to extensively experimenting with dough as well as the best way to seal the dumpling’s edge. She said she owns three copies of Stechishin’s book: One is her mother’s, the other her own and a third she keeps at the Frank.

“I reference it all the time,” she said.

Yarymowich’s culinary stamp is evident at the Frank. Because the restaurant is associated with the art gallery, she has occasionally created special menus inspired by major exhibitions showing at the AGO.

Recently Yarymowich created a carte du jour for the exhibit “Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde,” which ended on Jan. 15. The four-months-long exhibition explored the art and times of Russian-French artist Marc Chagall and his contemporaries.

Yarymovich’s menu, which changed frequently during the exhibit, is pure Eastern Europe but with a contemporary twist.

On a recent day, for the appetizer Yarymowich featured a choice between the borscht of the day or pan-fried stuffed egg with horseradish and caviar on a salad of baby arugula, baby beet greens, pumpernickel croutons and Dijon vinaigrette.
The ingredients in Eastern European dishes are very similar to what we can grow, including vegetables like beets. Traditional dishes are being elevated by gourmet ingredients

- Malcolm Jolley, a leading Canadian food critic

The entrée was a choice of pan-seared steelhead trout fillet on buckwheat blini, roasted baby carrots and lemon-chive sour cream sauce or braised beef brisket with caraway rye bread, choucroute and caramelized onion or mushroom barley stuffed cabbage rolls with truffle cream sauce and roasted wild mushrooms.

The dessert was a choice of charlotte Russe with brandy Alexsander sauce and brandied Damson plums or chocolate rum baba, a yeasted chocolate cakelet soaked in rum syrup, topped with dark chocolate glaze served with poached pear.

Malcolm Jolley, a leading Canadian food critic, said one of the reasons Eastern European food has finally caught on in Canada is because many of the recipes call on foodstuffs widely available in that country.

“The ingredients in Eastern European dishes are very similar to what we can grow, including vegetables like beets,” he said. “Traditional dishes are being elevated by gourmet ingredients.”

Eastern European has proven so popular in North America that Tom Birchard, the owner of New York’s famed Veselka restaurant said he recently opened a new eatery in the city.

Veselka, which opened its doors in 1954 offering basic Ukrainian fare, has been a staple in New York’s East Village and is a place where celebrities and regular folk can wander in at 3 a.m. and satisfy cravings for pyrohy and other foods.

“We try to stay true to the basic roots of the cuisine,” Birchard said in commenting on the success of his eatery.

Veselka and its dishes have been so popular that Birchard published in 2009 a cookbook of some of the restaurant’s most popular recipes, including its highly-acclaimed borscht.

“Borscht is having a resurgence,” Birchard said about new trends in international cuisine. “[People] are really interested in trying to come up with creative variants.”

Staff writer Natalia A. Feduschak can be reached at

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