Dinnertime. One recent weekday evening. George Medrek Sr. is ready for a visitor.
An electric skillet full of homemade potato-and-cheese pierogi simmers on the counter. Sour cream is on the table. All in all, he looks like the confident cook he has become.
Medrek grew up on this Polish specialty, as made by his mother and his aunt, both immigrants from Poland. Before his spotlight as a winner of our Lousy Cooks contest, he’d tried to make pierogi himself only once. He wasn’t really interested in learning how.
After his lessons with the local chefs, his prize for winning the contest, he changed his mind. He asked his aunt, Melinia Stupnckyj, for her recipe, and she walked him through the steps. His aunt, he said, makes five or six hundred pierogi at a time and donates them to her church. “She’s been doing that for 20 or 25 years,” he said. “Her recipe is the best.”
Last year, the single dad of two had only a few dinner dishes he comfortably knew how to make. He and George Jr. ate out frequently.
Since then, he’s broadened his culinary horizons considerably.
Cooking, he wrote in a recent e-mail, “has become a hobby of mine now. Since the interview, my cooking has greatly improved. I really enjoy cooking a whole lot more.”
The publicity called attention to him as a cook, or rather a non-cook, and suddenly he had expectations to live up to.
One of the first things he made last year was the lasagna he was taught to prepare at Ristorante Bartolotta, though he substitutes cottage cheese for ricotta cheese and commercial pasta sauce for the fresh tomato sauce that he said was “a little too much for me.”
George Jr., now 13, declared his dad’s lasagna to be “fantastic.” George Jr. was the force behind his dad’s selection last year as a Lousy Cook, writing a nomination letter that spelled out his father’s need for help in the kitchen.
What else has his dad been making? Lots of beef tips and mushrooms. (George Jr. doesn’t care so much for mushrooms.) Various kinds of omelets.
And beef vegetable soup – which got a big thumbs-up from George Jr. “It’s one of his best,” the seventh-grader said.
A day after this interview, when Medrek was called about his pierogi recipe, he was making breaded Sicilian steak and macaroni and cheese.
Medrek enjoys talking about what he cooks, describing step by step as someone might do who’s hosting a cooking show. He admitted to occasionally watching Rachael Ray’s “30-Minute Meals.”
One result of his heightened interest in cooking is that he and the boys eat out a lot less often. He now takes the time to plan ahead at least a couple of days.
The kids don’t seem to mind. George Jr. pronounced his dad’s cooking to be “really good.” “It’s just the flavor, the way it tastes. I can tell an improvement.”
Volunteered 9-year-old Nicholas: “He makes the best breakfast sandwiches!”
Medrek said he takes a little more time than he used to and puts more effort into his cooking.
He blushes a bit at his sons’ praise, saying only: “I try.”
But the learning process continues.
“I’m a meat and potatoes man, but I would like to get into baking more.”
He did make blueberry muffins and brownies, and the muffins weren’t bad, he said. He’s not big on sweets, but he has a weakness for a good apple pie. Perhaps he’ll try that someday.
Meanwhile, people who know him continue to ask, “What are you cooking today?”
The expectations continue, and Medrek seems equipped to fulfill them.
Recipes”Everybody’s mom, everybody’s grandma has their own version of pierogi,” said George Medrek. “My aunt’s has always been my favorite.”
Here’s that recipe.
Pierogi with Potato-Cheese Filling
Makes 2 1/2 to 3 dozen pierogi
2 ½ to 3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sour cream
½ cup lukewarm water
Potato-Cheese Filling (see recipe)
½ to 1 medium onion, diced
2 to 4 tablespoons butter (divided)
Sour cream for serving
In bowl, mix together flour, salt, egg, sour cream and water, starting with 2 ½ cups flour and adding more as needed. Dough will be sticky. Turn out onto generously floured board and knead a few times, then transfer to a large bowl, cover with a clean kitchen towel and let stand at room temperature 30 minutes to 1 hour or so.
While dough rests, prepare filling.
Roll out dough to about 1/16- to 1/8-inch thickness, flouring rolling pin as needed. While rolling out, before you get it to its final thickness, flip dough over a few times. Too thin, and dough will rip when adding filling; too thick and it won’t cook properly.
Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil.
Meanwhile, cut dough into 3- to 4-inch circles. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons filling on one side of each circle, then fold dough over to enclose. Press edges together to seal.
Drop pierogi in boiling water a few at a time and cook about 8 to 10 minutes. Pierogi will float to top as they cook. Stir occasionally. Pierogi are done when dough turns slightly opaque, and there may be slight wrinkling around filling.
Meanwhile, pan-fry onions in 1 to 2 tablespoons butter in a skillet. Lower heat and keep warm.
As pierogi are done, add to a separate skillet with remaining butter, cover and keep warm over low heat. Serve hot with sour cream and onions from pan.
Note: Alternatively, you can add remaining butter to onions and then add cooked pierogi to skillet with onions.
4 to 5 medium-size potatoes
½ cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste
Peel potatoes, cut in half and cook in boiling water until done, about 20 minutes. Drain and mash with cheese until thoroughly incorporated. Add salt and pepper to taste.