My friend Sarah and I share a Jewish heritage, which can be hard to find in the Portland area (where there are more bicycle commuters than Jews). I usually end up at her house for the holidays. These tend to be table-groaning feasts, short on ceremony but long on delicious food. Most recently, these dinners have tended to be from the Sephardic tradition; the foods of Jewish populations in the Iberian Peninsula, and, post-Inquisition, Italy and North Africa. Sarah observed, "I find I like the food of Spain better than the food of Poland." After a few amazing meals full of saffron and artichokes and lemon and almonds, I'm inclined to agree with her.
But while I've enjoyed our olivey tagines and pomegranate fish and orange couscous, every now and then I get a hankering for the heavier, simpler foods of Eastern Europe. Part of it is nostalgia, memories of meals with my Russian Jewish grandparents. But part of it results from the basic charms of peasant food, the allure of what we like to call A Thing Wrapped in Dough.
Kreplach are silky, meat-filled dumpling, similar to wontons. They seem to be the very definition of village cooking, creating a delicious holiday meal out of humble ingredients. You take chicken left over from soup-making, after it's dried-out and spent. You grind it up with mashed potatoes and broth to add back in a bit of moisture, and caramelized onions to reintroduce some flavor. Then you gussy the whole thing up inside a jacket of silky-smooth dough, and float them in some chicken soup. Among Jewish families of Eastern European descent, they're traditionally eaten as part of holiday meals, usually on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Since I stopped eating chicken, I've had to say goodbye to traditional foods like this. But, amazingly, you can make vegetarian kreplach. No, really. Here's the beauty: any vegetarian knows that chicken substitutes are often a bit short on authentic flavor, and the texture's all wrong. But kreplach are built around chicken that's already been boiled in soup, and has lost its moisture and flavor. The meat is ground up, hiding any textural shortcomings. And it's mixed with caramelized onions and potatoes, adding the flavor and moisture that are usually lacking in faux-meats. We've made the chicken and vegetarian versions side-by-side, and even my friends who would sooner gnaw their own finger than try a veggie burger have declared that both versions are delicious.
A bit of warning: like any dumpling, kreplach do take some time. They're best made when you've got an empty afternoon, or an army of kitchen monkeys to help you. But they also freeze beautifully, so you can get the most out of your efforts by making several batches at once. They are most definitely worth it.
adapted from the amazing caterer Pamela Reiss, via a tutorial she gave on egullet
makes about 4-5 dozen dumplings
3 cups flour
2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1/3 cup canola oil
1-1 1/4 cups warm water
Add the dry ingredients to the bowl of a food processor or mixer, and blend until well-mixed. With the blender going, drizzle in the oil, and then the smaller amount of water. Mix until smooth. Check the consistency -- it should be soft and smooth, but not too tacky. Add the remaining water if it's not smooth enough (or more flour if it's too sticky). Place the dough in a covered container so it doesn't dry out, and allow it to relax at room temperature for least 1 hour.
2 Tbsp oil (or rendered chicken fat)
1 small yellow onion, peeled and diced
1 small red potato, peeled and cut into chunks
1/2 lb boiled chicken (or chicken substitute, either gluten or a product made to resemble chicken breast)
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
up to 1/2 cup stock
Heat the oil (or chicken fat) in a cast iron or saute pan over a medium heat. Add the onions, and cook until well-caramelized (aka just the good side of burnt). This will take about half an hour. Turn the flame down if they're going too quickly -- a nice slow cooking will yield the best flavor.
While the onions are cooking, toss the potato chunks into a small pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, and simmer until they're tender.
When the onion and potato are ready, put them in a food processor or meat grinder with the chicken. Process until everything is broken down into a rough puree. If you're so inclined, you can also add some of the skin from the boiled chicken, which gets chopped up and contributes a luscious richness to the finished dumplings. Mash the ground chicken and and potatoes and onions together with your hands or a wooden spoon, seasoning to taste with the salt and pepper. Add stock if needed for moistness -- you want to make sure it's not too moist, or else it will soften the dumpling dough. Add just enough stock to make it like a spreadable pate. If you use faux meat, you might not need any stock at all.
To Assemble and Cook the Kreplach:
Take the dough that's been relaxing, and roll it out on a floured countertop to a thickness of 1/4" to 1/8". With a 2-inch round cutter (or drinking glass), cut out as many circles as you can. Pull up the remaining dough scraps, and re-knead into a ball (it's best to do this step now, so that the dough has a chance to relax before being re-rolled). With a tiny ice cream scoop, or two spoons, place a ball of filling (about a tablespoon) onto each dough circle. Fold the dough around the filling to make a half-circle, pressing the edges to seal. Take the two corners and press them together, creating a tortellini shape. Place shaped dumpling on a well-floured cookie sheet. Roll out remaining dough scraps, and repeat the process.
When the kreplach are all shaped, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Throw in a dozen or so kreplach. They will sink to the bottom, but then float to the top fairly quickly. Once they've all floated to the top, simmer for an additional minute. Remove with a slotted spoon, toss with a bit of neutral-flavored oil (like canola), and spread on a cookie sheet or plate. Repeat until all kreplach are cooked. At this point they can be either frozen for future use, or floated in a bowl of soup and served.