ANYONE WHO KNOWS EASTERN EUROPEAN CUISINE knows that the way it has long been stereotyped is simply criminal. Mysterious meats, bland, overcooked combinations of potato and cabbage: these are the stubbornly lingering Cold War clichés that sadly spring to some minds. In actuality, the region’s offerings encompass a vast array of colors and flavors: the bright kick of fermented tomatoes or pickled watermelon, the savory richness of slow-roasted pork, or the subtle tang of sourdough pancakes.
Recipes for all of these dishes appear in “Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from Every Corner of Ukraine,” a new cookbook from London-based chef, food writer, and food stylist Olia Hercules. Her mission — also evident in her 2015 cookbook “Mamushka” — is to showcase the wild diversity of the country, whose borders, she writes, “have oscillated between Russian, Austrian, Polish and Turkish rule, with Crimean Tatar and Mongolian invasions in between.” Ukraine, she points out, is often lumped together with Russia and thought of as a place with a cold, harsh climate. But the country can be more temperate, with hot, verdant summers, and soil so fertile it’s been called “black gold” and sold on the black market. (The country has long been known as “the breadbasket of Europe” because the soil has made for superior grain production.) The result is a vibrant, hybrid cuisine, starring exquisitely colorful, local produce.
Hercules grew up in Kakhovka, a port city in southern Ukraine, where she explains that “summer kitchens” — simple standalone structures devoted to cooking and eating — were a “natural and unremarkable part of our lives.” There, family members made meals and preserved and fermented fruits and vegetables. Sometimes the structures were used to prepare big feasts in winter, she writes. Using the summer kitchen as her lens, Hercules celebrates the variety of the local bounty and specific preparations particular to the season. The book, which offers an abundance of vegetarian recipes, highlights the natural seasonality and sustainability that characterizes small-town cooking in so many parts of the world. There is much forethought and little waste — the same jars hold fermented chilies, tomatoes, and cucumbers year after year.
There is much forethought and little waste — the same jars hold fermented chilies, tomatoes, and cucumbers year after year.
In the south, fresh fruits and vegetables are especially abundant, Hercules writes. “People’s gardens boast equally large aubergines, sweet and hot peppers, herbs, rhubarb, prickly cucumbers and candy-sweet potatoes so flavoursome they need little else when cooked.” The roads between villages “are bordered with orchards of red, yellow and morello cherry trees, quinces, apples, pears, peaches, apricots and plums.” At the herb stall, the home cook can pore over piles of dill, coriander, purple basil, sorrel, spring onions, and parsley. “It is a cornucopia worthy of an artist’s brush.”
In summer kitchens, the late season is spent making way for fall. “The beginning of autumn,” writes Hercules, “always signaled it was time to preserve and let things ‘go sour,’ as we say in Ukraine,” choosing the most perfect specimens from among the last of the season’s fruits and vegetables to pack into jars for brining and pickling. In her own cellar in London, she adds, “the shelves are slowly getting filled with jars: green tomatoes, chiles, apples, sauerkraut, and all sorts of crazy kvas concoctions for when I fancy a refreshing kombucha-like drink or want to perk up a soup.”
But it isn’t all fermentatsiya, as the Ukrainians call fermentation. “Summer Kitchens” includes recipes for curative broths, crispy zucchini fritters, and hearty meat and fish dishes, like Pot-Roast Chicken Cooked in Herby Crème Fraîche and Pigs’ Ears with Garlic and Paprika. There are also breads, buns, dumplings, and pastas, along with an array of surprising desserts — Steamed Bilberry Doughnuts that reveal a vivid plum-colored jam center, or a lusciously layered Poppyseed Cake with Elderflower and Strawberries (recipe reprinted below).
Hercules is a storyteller and she writes with literary flair — an essay on borshch (spelled without the ‘t’ in Ukraine) takes readers through Russian and Soviet history, and explores both the significance of the dish and its many variations. Some borshch is thin, like consommé, while some, like the recipe she includes in the book, is served with accoutrements such as smoked dried pears. In Hercules’ hometown, they eat thick, pink borshch with a dumpling made of kefir dough, which is poached in the soup and then sliced like bread.
Community is at the heart of Hercules’ food philosophy, and the book concludes with a collection of others’ culinary memories, short written entries on “Pitting Cherries with a Hairpin,” for instance, or “Sausage-Making and Campfire Potatoes.” Together with the author’s own recipes and reflections, they offer an evocative and poignant view of the season that will make even armchair travelers feel they are there.
Poppyseed Cake with Elderflower and Strawberries
- 5 of eggs, separated
- 250g of caster sugar
- Dash of vinegar or lemon juice
- 2 tbsp of poppy seeds
- 200g of plain flour
- Handful of elderflower blossoms, to decorate – optional
- 400ml of double cream
- 100g of caster sugar
- 75ml of elderflower cordial
- 500g of strawberries, hulled and cut into quarters
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/Fan 180°C/Gas Mark 6 and grease a 22cm cake tin with a little oil or butter.
- In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks with half of the sugar until foamy and light.
- In another bowl, whisk the egg whites with the vinegar or lemon juice until frothy, then gradually add the rest of the sugar and keep whisking until you have soft peaks.
- Mix the poppy seeds into the flour.
- Now add the egg whites to the egg yolk mixture, starting with one big spoonful to loosen the yolk mixture. Confidently fold in the rest of the egg whites apart from two large spoonfuls. Using a spatula, fold in the flour and poppy seeds, followed by the last of the egg whites.
- Pour the batter into the tin and bake for 40 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a wire rack to cool.
- Meanwhile, for the filling, whip the cream and sugar to soft peaks, taking care not to overwhip.
- When the cake is cool, cut it in half horizontally and drizzle the elderflower cordial over the cut sides of the cake. Sandwich together with half the cream and half the strawberries, then spoon the other half of the cream over the top. Scatter with the remaining strawberries and elderflower blossoms, if using.
Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a writer and editor based in Oakland, California. She is the author of "Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls." Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.