It all started with Sergey Donika’s Moldovan Cuisine, a book that one might call obscure for rather obvious reasons: 1) it’s written in Russian, 2) it was published in Chișinău, and 3) I found it in a bookstore in Kiev. Overnight, I went from not knowing a single Moldovan dish to having at my disposal “500 ancient and contemporary recipes” — at least that’s what it says on the cover. I’m afraid that this sudden profusion of choices (many of which didn’t sound all that different from one another), plus the fact that the book contains no index or detailed table of contents, left me a little bit confused. I completed my reading with the vague notion that I should be trying a dish with turkey, pumpkin, and prunes, and labeling it as Moldovan…
So, there! My Moldovan turkey gratin is full of what appears to be quintessential Moldovan ingredients, and it’s layered and baked like a Moldovan moussaka. Moreover, for my American readers, it’s an instant Thanksgiving classic that doesn’t even require you to be able to spell / pronounce / locate Chișinău on a map — and if you can’t wait till next year, you can always prepare it for Christmas. This makes a sophisticated side for roasted turkey breast, or a whole bird minus one leg. Or you can easily adapt the recipe to use your leftovers.
But first, is it varenyky or vareniki? Well, it depends. The Russian word, вареники, should be transliterated as vareniki. But since this is in fact a Ukrainian dish, it makes sense to transliterate the Ukrainian word instead. And the Ukrainian word is… вареники. Even if you can’t read Cyrillic, you probably noticed the two are spelled the same. But they’re not pronounced the same. The Ukrainian и is similar to the Russian ы, hence the transliteration with y’s. Big deal.
The leg of venison, from the deer I killed last fall, is still here. I see no reason to change the marinade either, unless you want to replace the oxtail with venison bones.
The cooking time is somewhat different: I used a slightly hotter oven for a shorter duration. Both results were very tender and I’d really have to compare them side by side to pick my favorite (which I didn’t do, sorry). The challenge is that while maximum tenderness requires longer cooking times, maximum juiciness demands the opposite. Add in all the other elements of your recipe, and you get a problem with no clear solution. With the method I’m using here, and considering the fact that there are fewer elements to prepare than in my previous goulash, the recipe is slightly more approachable (read: it will take 3 days instead of 4).
The Moscovite sauce is something you would know by heart, had you studied your Escoffier like any self-respecting cook before the advent of nouvelle cuisine. This rather obscure sauce is a modified sauce poivrade particularly suited to accompany venison. I made some changes to streamline the preparation with the rest of this recipe. I haven’t found any good explanation that connects the ingredients to Moscow (neither Malaga nor the golden raisins scream Russia to me), but the name of the sauce itself more than justifies the presence of this post on my blog, right? RIGHT? Speaking of Malaga, it’s not always easy to find, so you can use Marsala instead — I guarantee you the result will be just as Muscovite :)
This time, the varenyky are filled with a butternut squash mixture. The filling is loosely inspired by the pumpkin manty I’ve eaten in Uzbekistan, but I figured the traditional manty shape would be too fragile for mixing the dumplings with the rest of the dish.