ukrainian cuisine: 11 posts

Jasmine of Angels, Jasmine of Madonna

Of all the names by which philadelphus is known–summer jasmine, farmer’s jasmine, mock orange, the loveliest ones are the Italian monikers of this sweet smelling blossom, Fiorangelo or Gelsomino della Madonna. Angel flower or Madonna’s jasmine.

In Ukraine we call it simply zhasmin, jasmine, and the jasmine of my Bois de Jasmin is this very plant. No summer image existed in my mind apart from its blossoming clusters leaving white petals in my hair and its heady perfume clinging to my skin.

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Cucumbers and Honey

Have you ever tasted a slice of cucumber dipped in honey? The combination reveals that at its heart, cucumber is  a fruit.

While the pairing of cucumber and honey may sound like an invention of young Danish chefs, it’s a classical Ukrainian duo and the ultimate taste of summer. By the time my great-grandmother was ready to harvest the first batch of cucumbers from the vines, the mild acacia honey would become available at the market, and the two went perfectly together, an earthy green and floral fragrance and the taste of sea and violet leaves in one mouthful. I couldn’t even unravel which nuance was of the cucumber and which of the honey.

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Rum Raisin Cake

Next to the cookbooks written by my great-grandmother Olena, my other beloved ones are by the Ukrainian food writer Daria Tsvek. I love her voice, advice, and of course, recipes that highlight the flavorful Galician cuisine of Tsvek’s native Lviv. Last week I tried Tsvek’s rum raisin cake that comes from a book called For the Festive Table (До Святкового Столу). Published in 1973, it offers menus and recipes for holidays and celebrations, along with suggestions on how to organize one’s time and host dinner parties.

I picked up the book for my cookbook collection, but I ended up cooking so much from it that I made a photocopy to use in the kitchen. Tsvek’s imaginative and inventive flair fill the pages. She’s able to concoct an elegant feast out of the simplest ingredients, and reading her book I’m not even aware of the endemic Soviet shortages that must have made the task of a recipe writer difficult. Her rum raisin cake turned out to be buttery, crumbly and fragrant, a recipe to add to my baking repertoire.

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Honey Marinated Peppers

My grandmother Valentina’s approach to food is simple–if it doesn’t taste good, it can’t be good for you. She doesn’t have patience for the self-induced sufferings of health food devotees, and she remains suspicious of green juices, raw beet salads and salt-free cabbage soups. I once loved to experiment with all of the above. To my credit I even convinced a friend to try a raw food diet for a week. Such an idea in the Soviet Union during winter wasn’t for the fainthearted. Our food supply was ideal for Park Slope locavores–seasonal. It meant that once we got fed up with last year’s apples and carrots, we moved onto raw potatoes. There is a reason–and I suspect, evolutionary sense–why humanity has chosen to give potatoes some form of thermal treatment.

pepper salad

After that infelicitous experience,  I’ve remained immune to most food fads, preferring instead to follow Valentina’s logic. Above all, it must taste good. Although Valentina doesn’t care for raw lettuce, she has a repertoire of vegetable salads, many of which she makes during the summer and preserves for the winter. Her pantry shelves are lined with jars of pink cabbage, eggplant slices in a spicy sauce, pickled zucchini or honey marinated peppers. Since Belgian markets have peppers all year round, the latter is an effortless dish to put together, summer or winter. I skip the canning part.

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Crepe Cake with Sweet Cheese, Raisins and Raspberries (Solozhenyk)

I love nothing more than to pour a cup of tea and to flip through my great-grandmother Olena’s recipe books. Although there are many good cooks in my family, Olena was uncontested in her expertise and passion. I was a toddler when she passed away, but my mother and aunt’s stories and Olena’s handwritten books give shape to the woman of whom I only have a few sepia tinted photographs. Our family lore wouldn’t be complete without stories of Olena’s garlicky pork roasts, bright yellow sponge cakes filled with vanilla cream and raspberry compotes.

solozhenyk1

My favorites among Olena’s recipes are the forgotten old dishes that got lost during the decades of Soviet food shortages, standardization of the cuisine and obliteration of regional traditions. Some of it was forced by the state to create a market for commercial products; some of it was a part of a natural process as more women joined the work force and no longer had time to prepare complex meals. Olena’s recipes belong to another generation, but this is not to say that all of them are time consuming, extravagant affairs. For instance, her solozhenyk, crepe cake filled with lemony cheese garnished with raspberries, is elegant, but it’s also inexpensive and easy to make.

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