As a brutal war ravages his family's native Ukraine, it may seem a bit trivial to ask Veselka owner Jason Birchard about pierogies. But during our lengthy – and at times, heavy – interview for this installment of "An American Experience," it's a topic that prompted a spontaneous, perhaps much-needed laugh.
After all, for three generations now, the family behind this popular Ukrainian coffee shop has been in the business of making people smile through its comfort food, a sanctuary from whatever's going on beyond Veselka's four walls at the corner of 9th and 2nd in New York's East Village, a section historically known as Little Ukraine. It's why there have been lines down the block for months, with New Yorkers eager to support this culinary war effort.
How to Make the Perfect Pierogi
Pierogies have been around so long, no one is exactly sure where they came from. And they’re so popular around the world that a number of countries and societies lay claim to them—including Ukraine, where they’re known as varenyky.
Whether fried and crispy or steamed and pillowy, Veselka's pierogi come with a variety of fillings—meat, potato, sauerkraut and mushroom, among others, not to mention specialty and seasonal offerings like short rib and buffalo chicken. The restaurant makes some 5,000 of them a day, with many of its assembly line crew first-generation immigrants from Ukraine.
The thickness of the dough has to be just right. A lot of people claim that our handmade pierogi melt in your mouth, more so than frozen pierogi you might buy in the supermarket.
So whether you're stopping by Veselka for a late-night nosh, ordering online, or attempting these storied creations yourself at home, I asked Birchard what makes for the perfect pierogi—an unlikely lesson in product diversification for other business owners. Here's what he had to say.
1. Start with the fundamentals.
“The thickness of the dough has to be just right. A lot of people claim that our handmade pierogi melt in your mouth, more so than frozen pierogi you might buy in the supermarket. We start with classic fillings. We have a potato, we have a sauerkraut and mushroom, we have a sweet farmer's cheese. Those were the classics. In the '90s, we expanded to include arugula and goat cheese. We've done different meats, like braised short rib, which is one of our most popular meat versions.”
“Staying up with the times, we offer a Buffalo chicken pierogi during football season with a little hot sauce as a dipping side. Staying relevant, we offer different fruit varieties during the summer months. We've experimented now with doing different toppings. We have what we call a 68th anniversary bowl, a combination of some of our best fillings topped with some chopped grilled kielbasa and onions. During the summer, we offer a more fruity dessert, a cherry and cheese pierogi bowl with a sweet cherry sauce.”
3. Don’t over-complicate it.
"As some of our late-night customers will attest, they love a good fried pierogi to sop up some of that alcohol. And we’re happy to help. But to be honest, I don't think I've ever heard of a bad pierogi."
Photos: Christopher Lane