By Lorrie Baumann
Polska Foods is bringing a traditional pre-Soviet Polish culinary staple to American grocers’ freezer cases. The young California company goes to great lengths to make its Organic Potato Cheese Pierogi, Mushroom Cabbage Vegan Pierogi with Sauerkraut, Organic Spinach & Feta Pierogi and Savory Beef & Pork Pierogi from high-quality organic ingredients and time- and labor-intensive methods to produce products that honor the culinary traditions of Chief Operations Officer Tomasz Piszczek’s Polish grandmother, says Bridget McQueen-Piszczek, the company’s CEO.
McQueen-Piszczek discovered pierogi when her new husband, Tomasz Piszczek, took her to Poland to meet his family in 2010. “Everything we ate at his parent’s farm was from the garden, the fields, or wild-picked from the neighboring forest – even the meat we ate was from a neighbor,” she says. “When I had their pierogi with all the fresh ingredients, I thought, this is incredible.” Piszczek’s parents and grandmother didn’t speak any English, and McQueen-Piszczek didn’t speak any Polish. “We ended up communicating through the food,” she said. “Good food allowed us to share a moment of love and appreciation when the language barrier prevented us from connecting.”
“When I came back to California, I said that we had to get some of these pierogi,” she continued. “We tried everywhere, even went to the East Coast, to delis where there were lines out the door.” But none of those pierogi compared to the ones made by her grandmother-in-law in Poland with thin delicate dough and stuffed with savory fillings. So finally, the Piszczeks decided that they were just going to have to learn how to make their own. They asked Piszczek’s grandmother for her recipes. “We started out making it just for ourselves, but when you make pierogi, you make a lot and you want to share them,” McQueen-Piszczek says. Dinner parties with friends turned into requests from friends and family members for a chance to buy the pierogi for their own tables, and then that turned into sales at local farmers markets and then a sale to the local Whole Foods market. “We just kept taking one step after the other, and then one day you wake up and think, Wow, we’ve got a whole company,” McQueen-Piszczek says.
It took a year after the Piszczeks decided to make the pierogi for the farmers market to find the right ingredients. “We visited the farms and the plants of all ingredient providers to guarantee quality and authenticity. Some of the ingredients, such as the cheese, had to be custom made to mimic the quality you find in Poland,” McQueen-Piszczek says. “Today we work with one of the only local organic mills in the Bay Area. Starting with exceptional ingredients is essential to gourmet pierogi, and all our pierogi are made fresh and flash frozen to preserve the flavor, texture, and nutrients.”
The Potato Cheese and Mushroom Cabbage Sauerkraut Pierogi were the first on the market. The Savory Beef & Pork Pierogi were added later because customers were asking for it, and the Organic Spinach & Feta Pierogi were added to the line as a more Americanized version of the traditional dish. “You see Spinach Feta pierogi in Poland today, but it’s not a flavor from many generations ago,” McQueen-Piszczek says.
The Potato Cheese Pierogi are certified organic and use handcrafted farmers cheese. The filling includes organic potatoes, organic caramelized onions, whole grain organic millet, roasted garlic, and fresh herbs. McQueen-Piszczek says that she occasionally gets questions about whether the inclusion of millet in the pierogi filling is quite authentic, but it’s true to the traditional Old World recipes from past generations. “The millet gives it more fiber and also has a nutty flavor. It’s a very old, ancient grain, and a lot of pierogi just had millet in them. It was used before potatoes,” she says. There’s a whole-wheat version and one made with unbleached, organic wheat flour.
Mushroom Cabbage Pierogi with Sauerkraut are made with a recipe that’s several centuries old and is the kind of pierogi that Poles eat during the Wigilia Christmas Eve vigil, when traditionally, people didn’t eat meat while they waited for Christmas Day. “It’s the tradition of giving something up in order to gain. Religious tradition has changed, but this flavor is still very popular year round,” McQueen-Piszczek says. “This recipe is from our family in Poland, from many generations of eating at Christmas-time. When Polish natives try this flavor for the first time, you can see in their facial expressions that this is the way their grandmother made it, and many tell us they haven’t had it for 20-plus years. We get that a lot.”
They’re vegan, and raw, fermented gourmet sauerkraut is the key ingredient, McQueen-Piszczek says. “ The second key is a slow cooking process where you caramelize the onions, and slowly cook all the herbs and vegetables together for hours, creating a complex, well-balanced flavor. We make pierogi just like home – no short cuts in our processing.”
The Organic Spinach Feta Pierogi are award-winning and vegetarian, made from organic spinach, organic caramelized onions, portabello mushrooms, roasted red bell peppers and feta cheese in a whole-wheat organic dough. They offer 16 grams of whole grains per serving. Savory Beef & Pork Pierogi are made with organic white flour, hormone- and antibiotic-free minimally processed beef round and pork along with caramelized onions, whole-grain organic buckwheat, crimini mushrooms, roasted garlic, smoky paprika, spicy peppers and herbs in a tomato base. “You almost don’t need a topping on the beef and pork ones,” McQueen-Piszczek says. “We used the best-sourced meats and ingredients that you can get.”