One of the weirdest, worst, and most enjoyable dinner parties I ever went to was held about 15 years ago, in South Bend, Indiana, and involved a large group of drunken Russians. The Russians were grad students at Notre Dame, where I was in graduate school. A chummy group of chemical engineers, they liked me and invited me to dinner at one of their homes. When I got there, I looked around the kitchen I saw what were to be the sole elements of the dinner: a giant bag of pelmeni and four comically oversized bottles of vodka. The entire night consisted of endless bowls of pelmeni and endless shots of icy-thick vodka.
Pelmeni, I found out to be delight, are essentially Siberian tortellini. They’re filled with meat, but unlike in Italy, they aren’t served in brodo, or in a savory rabbit ragu. They aren’t, in fact, served in anything. They’re served in bowls. They are tossed with some butter and fresh dill, and if you’re lucky you might have a little bottle of vinegar to throw on them Or not. Pelmeni are what you might call a minimalist food. I asked one of the Russians why they were so popular.
“In north,” he said, “at start of winter, the mother, father, children, all sit around table, making pelmeni.” (He pronunced it “pel-myen-i”). “The make many, many, pelmeni. It’s fun, you know? Then they take trays of pelmeni and put them outside. They freeze and stay good all winter. When mother wants to make pelmeni, she takes some and boils them. That’s what Siberian people eat in winter, in old times.” It was an inspiring story indeed, and it was obvious to me that we were clearly going to reenact it. And we did. It was pelmeni, pelmeni, and pelmeni. But the dill made it light and fragrant, and the butter made it rich. The dough made it filling and the ground pork, beef, and veal had a pleasing umami quality, although any juice had been freeze dried out of it.
In the years since I have tried to always have a bag of pelmeni in the freezer. I get it at my local Russian grocery and you should do, if you have one nearby. Otherwise, here’s a recipe. Like the Siberian families of old, I reach in and take a few out whenever I am hungry, and boil them up in an a couple of inches of salted water. (Because why wait longer than you have to?) One advantage I have over the Russians, however, is that I have the option of serving the pelmeni in a lot of different ways, although I will be the first to admit that butter and dill is the best. You can also deep-fry them, which is of course even better.
Or you can do them in the style of sichuan wontons in hot oil!
Pelmeni With Hot Chili Oil
1 cup pelmeni
¼ cup Calabrian chilis in oil
1 tbsp scallions, chopped fine
salt and pepper to taste
Boil the water. Add the pelmeni.
Chop the peppers taking care to preserve the seeds.
Boil the pelmeni for four or five minutes max. They will float when they are ready.
Add the pelmeni to a bowl, add the peppers and pour a liberal amount of chili oil over. The pelmeni should still have some water clinging to them. If not add a teaspoon of water. Mix well.
Scatter scallions on top. Eat. Repeat as needed