Olia Hercules’ Summer Kitchens
Summer Kitchens by Olia Hercules (Bloomsbury) is an intriguing book. Part recipes, part social history, it is a fascinating account of a disappearing phenomenon in the Ukraine where Hercules spent her early years. Memories of women gathering in their summer kitchens to preserve the abundant harvest for the long winter months are part of her upbringing and Hercules sets out to capture not only the recipes but the stories. She is an evocative writer, drawing in the reader with her intelligent storytelling. Any food writer who manages to quote Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita in their cookbook has my full attention.
Summer kitchens are traditional structures built alongside the main house and not, as I had initially assumed, the sort of alfresco kitchen that has become so popular in warmer climates in contemporary house design. These summer kitchens, where people cooked and ate all through the scorching summers, date back to the post-war period, survived the Soviet era and are now in decline. Some readers may just open the book for the popular Hercules’ recipes but that would be to miss a fascinating introductory essay in which she artfully interweaves personal history with the political history of the Ukraine and the role that food and its preservation have played in family life.
A cookbook about Ukrainian cuisine is bound to have at least one recipe with beetroot playing the starring role. Summer Kitchens has several. This pleased me as I have yet to eat a beetroot dish that I did not enjoy. I like this root vegetable so much that before I even opened the cookbook, I had a Tupperware filled with recently roasted beetroots in my fridge. Ingredients waiting for a recipe you might say. I was spoilt for choice as I paged through Summer Kitchens. I might have made beetroot and horseradish, making good use of the half-eaten jar of horseradish sauce lurking in the fridge, or could have tried my hand at beetroot kvas, a fermented drink. In the end, I plumped for a simple beetroot salad made with grated apple, toasted walnuts and a tart dressing. It was the family favourite when I served a variety of Ukrainian salad dishes for a summer dinner in the garden. The glistening, ruby beetroot and the green apple, both grated, were anointed with sherry vinegar and oil dressing with a good grinding of salt and black pepper. This integration made for a mouthful of sweet and tart, peppery flavours, the toasted walnuts adding crunch and texture.
The Ukrainian take on baba ganoush – its third cousin, quips Hercules – was smoky and silky as all good baba ganoush is. I didn’t think that the addition of butter (whisked into the beaten aubergine) added enough to the finished product to justify the extra fat content. However, the idea of serving it spread on top of pan con tomate was a good one. I often make this easy to prep toasted bread with garlic and tomato as it is a great accompaniment to a table of mezze or even a starter in itself. I had never thought of adding a topping to it other than chopped, ripe, tomatoes and basil and pools of top-quality olive oil.
Often when cooking from a new cookbook I am tempted to try out dishes that are completely new to me. Summer Kitchens has a number of dishes that look familiar yet are surprisingly different. One of these is courgettes with herbaceous lyok dressing. I regularly sauté rounds of courgette in olive oil and top them with shavings of Parmesan. It is a favourite dish at my table. Hercules takes the fried courgettes in quite a different direction, dressing them with lyok which she informs readers is a garlic and herb paste usually used in broths. Tarragon, dill, parsley and thyme are blended with garlic, cider vinegar and honey into a most unusual dressing. The greenery looked very pretty on the plate, while the vinegary dressing cut through the richness of the fried courgettes. It is both a simple and complexly flavoured dish which Hercules recommends eating alongside a dish of boiled potatoes. This herby dish also lends itself well to accompanying a simple grilled salmon or even a piece of roast chicken or a chop.
The final dish I tried from Summer Kitchens was a barley, bean and mushroom casserole. This is a dish of Jewish origin, known as cholent, an overnight, slow-cooked stew made traditionally across Eastern Europe when there were large Jewish communities before WW ll and the Holocaust. The ingredients cooked all night in the embers of the wood-burning stove that is called a pich in Ukrainian. Cholent continues to form the basis of the sabbath lunch wherever orthodox Jewish communities are to be found. While Hercules’ vegetarian version is not slow-cooked overnight, it was as comforting as can be. I cut corners – Hercules suggests the possibility herself – by not soaking beans overnight. Instead, I opened a glass jar of Spanish beans which are much pricier than the supermarket variety but oh so much more delicious and textured if you are not soaking your own. Some fried onion and garlic, pearl barley, sweet paprika and tomato puree all played their parts and the pot simmered away happily. I had hoped to have some leftovers as I was sure the flavours would be even better the next day (as is the case with most stews). Sadly, there was not a drop left, the serving dish was literally wiped clean, so popular was this casserole when it arrived on my table for dinner. This is one for repeating.
I had intended to cook a dish of Padron peppers in a tomato sauce but sadly my supermarket delivery substituted these for Romano peppers which are something entirely different.
As is to be expected in a Ukrainian cookbook, Summer Kitchens has a sizeable section on fermenting. Sadly, I am not an avid pickle eater nor do I ever pickle. But I found enough in the book, nevertheless, to pique my interest. As a mainly vegetarian cook, there was a surfeit of vegetable dishes from which to choose.
Many of the desserts require a go at the sourdough starter Hercules provides. As I have a brilliant sourdough bakery I frequent, I will leave this to the professionals. However, Hercules gives clear instructions for those less lazy in the kitchen than myself. I could not resist a good look at the recipe for poppy seed cake and had planned to bake this treat of a dessert that is luscious with cream and strawberries. It was not to be as my supermarket delivery substituted poppy seeds with sesame! But there is a birthday approaching and I am determined to produce this very pretty cake for the festivities.
Summer Kitchens is a book to take time over, as it is as much about the nostalgic stories of the bricks and mortar structures as it is about the families that inhabit them and the food preserved and produced. It is a wonderful addition to any food lover’s summer reading.
A richly satisfying casserole with earthy flavours of beans and mushrooms
- 250 grams dried cannellini beans or 2 x 400g tins of cannellini beans, drained
- 40 grams dried wild or porcini mushrooms
- 800 ml hot water
- 200 grams pearl barley
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil
- 50 grams butter Omit if making this dish vegan
- 2 onions diced
- 2 cloves garlic finely chopped
- 2 tbsp tomato puree
- 1 tsp sweet paprika
- 80 grams chanterelle mushrooms
- sea salt and pepper
- 1 handful parsley chopped, to serve
Soak the beans overnight if using dried cannellini beans.
Next day, drain the beans and place in a pot with cold water, don't salt the water. Bring to the boil and then lower the heat, simmering gently for around 50 minutes. Timing depends on the age of your beans but you want them soft but not falling apart.
Soak the dried mushrooms in the hot water for half an hour. Drain but keep the soaking liquid. I pour it through a tea strainer so as to get rid of any grit. Squeeze as much water as you can out of the mushrooms (add the liquid to the reserved lot you have put aside).
Put the pearl barley into a pot of cold salted water, bring to the boil and then reduce the heat so that the barley simmers for between 20 to 30 minutes, until just cooked. Drain and set aside.
Heat two tablespoons of oil and half the butter in a casserole or thick bottomed deep pan. I didn't use the butter so can vouch for this being vegan friendly without the butter.
Add the chopped onions and a pinch of salt and let it cook at a slow pace for around 10 minutes. You want the onions to turn golden.
Add the garlic, tomato puree and paprika and cook gently for around three minutes.
Pour in the reserved mushroom soaking liquid and turn up the heat to medium and cook for another three minutes.
Add the cooked pearl barley, the beans (I used a good quality Spanish brand that comes in a glass jar), and the mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper. Cook for 10 minutes.
In the meantime, fry the chanterelles in the remaining oil (and butter if using) over a medium heat. You may need to do this in batches. Don't turn them too often, let them get nice and golden.
Serve the casserole with the fried mushrooms on top and garnish with the chopped parsley.