Naming a single national dish for a whole country is a very artificial exercise. For Latvia, Wikipedia suggests latke, and sure, Latvians eat potato pancakes, probably tons of them, but… so does the rest of Eastern Europe. Roasted Montreal suggests grey peas and bacon, but that evokes a rather sad image of Latvian food (and what the heck does Roasted Montreal know about it, anyway?). Cooking Latvia hints at piragi, and their recipe is featured in Ingredient Matcher‘s compilation of national dishes. That sounds like a much better choice to me. They’re more unique and appealing.
Just don’t get piragi confused with pierogi! Though the etymology’s the same, the recipes differ on some important points, and a pirags (singular pirags, plural piragi) actually has more in common with a Russian pirozhok. Kind of.
Back in the winter of 2009-2010, I spent three weeks touring Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. I must say I don’t have indelible memories of Latvian cuisine. I mostly remember the food looking brown and grey, and not tasting all that much better (think overcooked meat, grey peas, and soups in bread bowls), except for the offerings at the odd medieval-themed restaurant like Rosengrals, which hardly reflects contemporary cooking. The food markets on the other hand were much more interesting, go figure…
But I must not have eaten piragi while I was there, or I definitely would have remembered. The typical pirags is a crescent-shaped baked pastry filled with onions, bacon, and sometimes other meats. Traditionally, piragi are made only for special occasions and in very large quantities. And like most things with dough and bacon, they’re very addictive. My first encounter dates only from a year or so ago, and was almost fortuitous. Through my daughter, we had recently made friends with a fellow French-American family, and the American half of the parental pair turned out to be an avid home cook with a Latvian background. For our first dinner at their place, Erika made her famous piragi, following her grandmother’s recipe. Over the course of one long evening, we probably ate over a pound of them per person!
Erika’s piragi are filled with bacon, ham, and onion, and a hefty amount of cardamom goes into the dough. What, you may exclaim, is cardamom, a spice originally from India, doing in Latvian food? Simple: a long time ago, as the Balts established trade routes to Byzantium (now Istanbul) to trade local amber, they became fond of the spice and took it back home, where it’s been a pastry mainstay ever since. Now, why cardamom specifically? I don’t know…
The recipe I’m presenting doesn’t differ much from Erika’s. The main change is my obsessive use of precise measurements for everything, so you won’t need to have a Latvian grandmother in order to get the recipe right on your first try. Erika mixes the filling in a food processor, and flattens the dough with the palm of her hand one nugget at a time. I, on the other hand, don’t own a food processor, and prefer using a rolling pin and a cookie cutter to work with the dough. The latter method results in more uniform pastries, but you can decide which approach you like best. I am also making my own pork belly instead of using store-bought bacon, but this is entirely optional.
The trickiest part of the preparation is probably in shaping the piragi properly, so I’m providing a video below. Not that an imperfectly folded pirags will be inedible, but here at Food Perestroika, we like doing things the right way.
The piragi are perfectly good all by themselves, and you can spend a wonderful evening stuffing your face with each batch coming out of the oven. If you want to make a more balanced meal, I recommend serving them with a mushroom soup and pickled vegetables. The earthiness of the soup and the tang of the pickles go particularly well with the meaty, smokey piragi. We’ll explore homemade pickling another day, but I’m attaching my mushroom soup recipe, vaguely inspired by various tomes in my cookbook collection (Pokhlebkin in particular). It contains a lot more vegetables than just mushrooms; you’ll find cabbage, onion, and carrot. The choice of fungi varieties is up to you. I’m using cremini, but one could replace them at least in part with wild mushrooms, fresh or dry — just keep in mind that their stronger flavors might require changes in the proportions.
Pork belly sous-vide
Yields 6 servings
200 g water
15 g smoked salt
2 g curing salt
8 g sugar
0.2 g ground black pepper
200 g pork belly (in one slab, or in 6 cm slices)
- Place the water, smoked salt, curing salt, sugar, and black pepper in a blender, and process for a few seconds. Transfer to a bowl, add the pork belly, cover with plastic wrap, and marinate for about 12 hours.
- Take the pork belly out of the brine, and vacuum-seal in a sous-vide pouch. Cook in a 60 C / 140 F water bath for 24 hours. Reserve.
Yields about 6 servings
180 g green cabbage, small dice
50 g peeled onion, small dice
40 g peeled carrot
40 g butter
300 g cleaned cremini mushrooms, small dice
black pepper, ground
about 650 g chicken stock
50 g heavy cream
60 g crème fraîche
about 12 g green apple, fine julienne
about 2 g carrot tops, chopped
- In a rondeau pan over medium heat, sauté the cabbage, onion, and carrot in the butter until soft. Add the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring regularly.
- Add 2/3 of the stock, bring to a simmer, then cover, and cook for about 5 minutes, until all the vegetables are tender.
- Transfer to a blender, and process until smooth.
- Return the soup to the pan, and add the heavy cream and crème fraîche. Slowly mix in the remaining stock, checking the texture as you go; you might need slightly more or less stock than what I call for. Rectify the seasoning with salt and pepper, bring to a simmer, and cook for another 5 minutes.
- Pass the soup through a chinois, and reserve.
- When serving, reheat over medium heat, pour into cups, and garnish with the green apple julienne and chopped carrot tops.
Yields 6 servings (about 36 piragi)
225 g milk, lukewarm
7.2 g (1 packet) active dry yeast
5 g sugar
225 g AP flour, sifted
2 g ground cardamon
70 g butter
5 g smoked salt
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fit with the paddle attachment, mix the milk, yeast, and sugar, and let rest for 5 minutes.
- Add the flour and cardamom, and combine on low speed.
- Melt the butter in the microwave with the smoked salt, and stir with a fork (the salt probably won’t dissolve completely, and that’s OK). With the mixer running on low speed, add the butter to the dough.
- Cover the dough with plastic wrap, and let rise for about 1 hour, until doubled in volume. Punch down, and let rise for another 30-45 minutes, until doubled again.
Yields 6 servings (about 36 pirags)
130 g peeled onion, small dice
15 g canola oil
1 g star anise
140 g cooked ham, brunoise
140 g pork belly sous-vide (or store-bought bacon), brunoise
0.2 g ground black pepper
35 g egg yolk
35 g milk
- In a saucepan over medium heat, sauté the onion in the canola oil until golden brown. Stir in the star anise, cook for another minute, and remove from the heat.
- In a bowl, combine the onion, ham, and pork belly. Season with black pepper; usually, the mixture won’t need salt.
- Measure half of the dough (about 250 g), and place on a floured surface. Knead in 15 g of the meat filling, then roll to a 24 cm x 32 cm rectangle. You will probably need to add some flour to prevent the dough from sticking to the rolling pin, but try to add only the minimum necessary. Cut into 8 cm diameter discs.
- Place a spoonful of filling on each disc. For the perfectionist, each pirags should consist of 14-15 g of dough and 10-11 g of filling. For the rest of us, let’s just say that you can fill them more generously than you would fill ravioli, because you can press some of the filling into the dough when you seal them. In fact, don’t hesitate to do that — having the filling partly mixed with the dough is what makes piragi so great, if you ask me.
- Fold each disc into a half-moon, seal the edges, then flip to fold the edges under, and curve the tips to shape like a crescent. The perfectionist will verify that they’ve obtained a 7.5 cm long, 2 cm wide crescent. Everyone else should just watch Erika’s hands in the video above.
- Below you can see three stages of pirags shaping: the open disc with the filling, the half-moon with sealed edges, and the final crescent. Reserve the dough trimmings.
- Transfer the piragi to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a Silpat. If you have the patience, let rest for about 10 minutes.
- Mix egg yolk and milk, and brush the piragi with this egg wash. Bake in a 190 C / 375 F over for about 14-15 min, until golden brown. Transfer to a cooling rack.
- Repeat the process with the other half of the dough. Then roll the dough trimmings from the first 2 batches, and make a third batch; the dough will be less airy, but still good.
- Eat the piragi while still warm.