When did your love affair with food start? Step us through how you came to be curious about the world of culinary delights?
My love affair with food as a cook started pretty late - in my early 20s. I always loved food of course, and my grandmothers, mother, aunts and dad are all fantastic cooks. But I was a lazy teenager. I studied Italian at university and spent a year in Italy. There were so many kids of my age who were excellent, effortless cooks - they breathed this new-found passion for cooking in me and I never stopped.
How would you describe your approach to cooking? And the people, places and spaces that have inspired it?
I cook like people still cook in Ukraine in tandem with the seasons, trying not to waste anything, mostly vegetarian with good-quality meat and fish and, from time to time, I ferment vegetables. Ukraine, its people and the tradition of summer kitchens, are still some the biggest influences on my cooking.
Your latest book ‘Summer Kitchens’ was inspired by experiences from your childhood. Tell us more about the book and the idea that sparked it?
In Ukraine there is this amazing tradition to build a small one-room house not far from your main house that functions purely as a kitchen. Ukraine has very hot summers, and summer kitchens provide a cooler, more agronomic environment to cook a family’s daily meals and also to do a long culinary session - preserving the vegetable and fruit gluts for winter. It has always been such a regular, unremarkable thing to me, but when I mentioned it in the UK, it sparked interest. I realised how unique and interesting these kitchens are and thought they would be the perfect prism to document Ukraine’s culinary diversity. So we traveled about 10,000 km around Ukraine, visiting its summer kitchens - in the mountains, the steppes, by the sea - you name it, and documenting people’s stories and recipes.
How important to you is the idea of preserving cooking traditions?
I think it’s my life’s mission! Ukraine is so rich with traditional cooking and preservation techniques. So much of it has been lost, so it is imperative to document as much as possible - to revive it, adapting gently to modern tastes wherever needed. For example, there is a wild card recipe in Summer Kitchens for whole fermented watermelons. I wanted to include this recipe, so it’s documented and known. I didn’t expect anyone to make it. But they did! A couple in California fermented a watermelon in a bucket and then sent me photos of vodka watermelon cocktails they made. I loved how they used this ancient recipe (which in Ukraine is mainly used as a pickle, and a vodka chaser to be fair!). I thought it was genius and inspiring, and made me feel like even the most idiosyncratic Ukrainian recipe can find its use in the modern world.
What dish is currently warming your heart and filling your belly?
I am obsessed with these Ukrainian potato cakes stuffed with feta cheese and beans. They are unusual as you grate the potato raw on the fine side of the grater, then you mix it with flour and yeast! The filling is fantastic - sharp and comforting at the same time. They are incredible with a fried egg on top, especially if you are feeling slightly tender (after watermelon vodka cocktails perhaps)!
Ukrainian potato cakes stuffed with feta cheese and beans
These are made all over Ukraine, with endless variations in each region – but it was right by the Belarus border that I encountered the most delicious ones. These rather unusual yeast-leavened potato cakes were cooked over a pitch stove in a small village called Urdyutsk. I was shown how they could be stuffed with either salted herby curd cheese or bean paste. When my mum made some of these bean-stuffed potato cakes for our family in Kakhovka, everyone thought they were filled with meat!
- 800g maris piper potatoes.
- 1 onion.
- 1 egg, lightly beaten.
- 200g plain flour.
- 4g fast-action dried yeast.
- 50ml vegetable oil.
- Sea salt and black pepper.
- Bean paste.
- 1 x 400g tinned haricot (or any other) beans, drained.
- 100g feta cheese, crumbled.
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil.
- 1 small onion, finely diced.
- Garlic yogurt:
- 150ml yogurt.
- 25g dill, finely chopped.
- 1 garlic clove, crushed.
- If you want to make vegan potato cakes, collect the starchy water squeezed out of the grated potato and onion in a bowl. Carefully pour off the liquid to leave the starch behind and use this to bind the potato cakes instead of the eggs.
- For the filling, mash the beans and feta into a smooth paste. Divide the mixture evenly into 12 and roll into balls, then set aside for later.
- For the garlic yogurt, simply mix all the ingredients together in a small bowl.
- Peel the potatoes, then grate them on the fine side of a box grater. Do the same with the onion. Wrap the sloppy grated potato and onion in a clean tea towel and use your hands to squeeze out as much moisture as possible.
- Put the potato and onion into a bowl, add the egg, flour and yeast, then season with salt and pepper. Leave for at least 10-15 minutes, until slightly bubbly.
- Now heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium-low heat. Moving quite swiftly, drop dessertspoon full of the potato mixture into the pan, using the back of the spoon to spread out into circles about 10cm in diameter. You should be able to cook about three or four at a time, but take care not to overcrowd the pan.
- As soon as the potato cakes are in the pan, drop a tablespoonful of the filling on top of each potato cake, then place another dessertspoonful of the raw potato mixture on top. By the time you’ve done this, the potato cakes should be ready for flipping pretty much immediately. Carefully turn them, one by one, and cook on the other side for 2–3 minutes.
- Serve with the garlic crème fraîche.