The Food of Ukraine with Olia Hercules | Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street

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Episode 702
January 19, 2023

The Food of Ukraine with Olia Hercules

The Food of Ukraine with Olia Hercules

Ukrainian chef, author and activist Olia Hercules shares recipes and traditions from her home, and how she’s coping after almost one year of war. Plus, Jess Edberg tells the story of Dorothy Molter, who sold hundreds of bottles of root beer every day in Minnesota’s remote Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness; J. Kenji López-Alt teaches us what to do when there’s too much lettuce in the house; and Christopher Kimball takes your calls with co-host Sara Moulton.

Questions in this episode:

What's the best way to make beef broth from soup bones?

What's the best way to cook gnocchi after it's been frozen?

I made some blueberry lemon tarts that were terribly sour. How can I fix them?

    Home Food Olia Hercules Joe Woodhouse 05

    Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street Radio from PRX. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Today it's my interview with Ukrainian chef author and activist Olia Hercules. She shares recipes and stories from her home, and how she's coping after almost one year of war.

    Olia Hercules: To be completely honest with you, when the war started, I was completely dilapidated. For about three months, I couldn't eat, and I couldn't cook. In fact, I was really worried that I've lost that power, that resource that I had of something that could cure my mental state in some way. But then, when my parents left Ukraine and they were safe, I actually went to meet them in Italy, and I cooked with them and, and I regained that power I regained that ability to cook.

    CK: We'll hear from Olia later in the show. First, we're heading to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness in northern Minnesota, where Dorothy Molter sold hundreds of bottles of root beer every day to summer tourists from the 1950s until her death in 1986. Jess Edberg, Executive Director of the Dorothy Molter Museum in Ely, Minnesota, is here to help tell her story. Jess welcome to Milk Street.

    Jess Edberg: Well, Hi Chris nice to be here.

    CK: So, let's start with who was Dorothy Molter.

    JE: Who was Dorothy, Dorothy here in Ely. She's a local icon, but she was the last non-Indigenous resident of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness and known as the root beer lady.

    CK: What's that boundary area wilderness? How big is it? Where is it, etc.

    JE: So, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness is in northeastern Minnesota. A few million acres. And so, the rules about traveling in the wilderness are basically the the Cliffs Notes version is it's a non-motorized wilderness. And because of the glacial activity here, 1000s of years ago, there's a ton of lakes. And so the main mode of transportation is by canoe.

    CK: So, in 1930, Dorothy first visits a resort in the Boundary Waters, says on a fishing trip, and then she moved to the resort year-round to work as a living nurse and resort manager. So, then she becomes really well known and beloved among the visitors. And she lives there for 30 years. And then comes some trouble. All of a sudden, no one's supposed to be living in the Boundary Waters. There's not supposed to be a resort in this wilderness area. But she managed to get special dispensation, right?

    JE: Yes, she’s having been there and being the sole owner, proprietor since ‘48, she had built up this very positive reputation among the community here, as well as her resort guests. And when the Wilderness Act passed in 1964, she was one of the last permanent residents and then was told, hey, your property is going to be condemned, and you can't live here anymore. A lot of these supporters in in some of them in high places, came out and showed their support. So, speaking to government officials, writing editorials in fairly large newspapers. And so, as a result, she was able to negotiate with the Forest Service and ultimately get permission to stay there. It was temporary at first, but then it was extended to a lifetime tenancy in the 70s.

    CK: So, what's the mythology around her? What is it about her that particularly strikes a chord in that part of the state.

    JE: Part of the mythology I guess, around Dorothy is, at the time where she took over in the 40s, there were some really kind of rigid gender roles, and she really went against that grain. And so, she chose not to be married and to operate this business 15 miles from the nearest road on her own and she stuck to her guns. She wanted to stay there. She wasn't interested in moving to town and having running water, electricity. She really liked her lifestyle. And then of course, you add her making homemade root beer in a wilderness setting. It was this novelty that people didn't expect when they were going up into the boundary waters to see a woman on an island in the middle of a wilderness and then hey, would you like an ice-cold root beer?

    CK: She wasn't making the root beer from scratch, right? She she had root beer syrup, or it wasn't she wasn't going back to make the authentic root beer, right?

    JE: Correct. She just wanted to have some nice beverage for her resort guests. And root beer is a very North American South American traditional beverage that had been made for hundreds of years and homes across, you know, the continent. And so, she found some easy recipes that took into account the supplies that she had available to her in the town of Ely.

    CK: So, she starts with a syrup or extract water sugar. And then I guess it has to ferment in the bottle for a while. Is that right? (Yes) I think some people loved it. And but some people didn't, right?

    JE: Yeah, for folks that had been on a boundary waters trip had been out in the wilderness for five 7 - 14 days, drinking lake water, possibly using iodine to purify it, stopping at Dorothy's on the way out, the root beer was more of an experience. And so, the taste of it was influenced, kind of by the anticipation of having a cold beverage during a hot summer in the wilderness. You know, it's, it's kind of this holistic experience for the folks that generally had a positive view of the root beer. Where folks that, you know, maybe were root beer aficionados or made their own root beer or were just up there to visit Dorothy briefly. It maybe didn't taste as good.

    CK: You know, back in the 70s, there was this whole back to the earth movement, right. And now we're sort of, in a strange period where there's still a little bit of that the idea of a simple life, I think is appealing. Could you just talk about what you think people find appealing about it today?

    JE: Sure, I find that there tends to be kind of two forks on that road of what people are attracted to about Dorothy and her life and her personality, and one is that female empowerment. When we look at her life, and the time that she lived, and the choices she made, it's an inspirational story that a lot of folks, especially young women can look to for kind of guidance or inspiration. And the the other road that I found a lot of people feeling inspired by or identifying with is that return to a simple life and just, you know, living off the land, and that's one of the common themes with visitors to the museum is, you know, I would have loved to live like Dorothy, but I don't know that I could do it. It's the idea that the romanticized idea of having that life that is attractive to people.

    CK: Well, I always like though, people, you know, go like, ah huh, I wish I could live her life. Well, uh huh. It's like Thoreau, you'd like you know, he could walk into Concord from Walden Pond have dinner with his mother. But but to really do this, the way she did it is anybody who's grown up in modern America would, very few people could actually do it. Well, you have to be a very special kind of person to do that.

    JE: You do, and you have to be self-motivated. And you have to understand that it's a lot of physical labor, you are daily hauling water daily chopping wood. And in Dorothy's situation, your daily having visitors come many of whom you don't know, and drain your personal space, and coming to see you to get a root beer and meet this, you know, mystery of the Boundary Waters.

    CK: Yeah, I that's an interesting part of the story. Because someone said, you know, how do you live such a lonely life? And the fact of matter is, she met 1000s of people a year who show up. How does she deal with 100 people showing up a day or whatever the number was? That would be hard, right? You always had to be on you always had to sort of entertain. How did that fit into her life?

    JE: Well, one of the things she did is she put a sign out that said, you know, you can stay for a maximum of 20 minutes, that helped with some of the people.

    CK: I like that. Well, she probably put up a sign, Dorothy’s not here today

    JE: Yeah, there were times you know, Dorothy's great nephew, Dan comes up and he said there were times where they would just, you know, leave the cooler full of root beer and they'd go exploring around Knife Lake for a while. And I think the opportunity and knowing that Dorothy could do that, balanced out some of that responsibility of being the root beer lady is that she had this beautiful wilderness all around her and she could go at any time and enjoy it herself.

    CK: Jess thank you so much. It's been a pleasure. It's a great story. Thank you.

    JE: And likewise, Chris. Thanks for having me. It's wonderful chatting with you.

    CK: That was Jess Edberg, Executive Director of the Dorothy Molter Museum in Ely, Minnesota. Now it's time to answer your cooking questions with my co-host Sara Moulton. Sara is of course the star of Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television. Also, author of Home Cooking 101. So, you lived in New York a long time you grew up in New York.

    Sara Moulton: I did.

    CK: So, I know back in the day, when I was living there in the 70s, I spent a lot of time going to inexpensive, you know, cheap eats, right, like they were discussed in New York Magazine. Is that something you still do? Have you found a lot of really great inexpensive places here?

    SM: There's fewer and fewer and fewer, you know, particularly after the pandemic, because so many of the mom-and-pop places shut down. But it's funny, you should bring that up. There was a column in New York Magazine called the Underground Gourmet.

    CK: Oh, yeah, I remember that.

    SM: And that is where the only place we would eat because it was the only place that was affordable. And that was fantastic. There are some places in (Queens, right?) Well, that for sure. And also, a little India, which is in the 20s on Lexington, there are some Indian restaurants that are still affordable. And so yes, I've eaten at some of those, but they're harder to find the city is unfortunately, getting more and more expensive.

    CK: There's a little place over on 9th Avenue in the 40s that does ramen, huh. It's definitely a hole in the wall. It's not one of these cool, super cool modern places. It's just a typical place. I was there a few months ago, and the ___ was it was better than what I had in Tokyo.

    SM: Oh my god, you don't remember the name of it though

    CK: No I’m just a big tease. And the Ramon was also great, but they're just a couple of people. Tiny little kitchen. That's my favorite place. Yeah, no, I agree with you. 20 bucks for dinner. It was outstanding.

    SM: I love those little, tiny places.

    CK: Okay, let’s take a call

    SM: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

    Caller: Maureen from Iowa.

    SM: Hi, Maureen. How can we help you today.

    Caller: So, we are fortunate enough to get locally raised beef each year. And our butcher gives us soup bones. So last spring, I ended up blanching them, and then roasting them in the oven and put them in a roaster for a couple days and then added some roasted vegetables later on maybe with 12 hours left. So, I was wondering if that (a) is the best way to make beef broth from the soup bones but (b) we ended up with a lot of meat leftover. And I wasn't sure if there was anything that we could do with that meat since it had already sat in the liquid for so long. If it would have any flavor left.

    SM: Can I just clarify first of all, so you blanch them meaning you boil them and then you took them out of the liquid, right?

    Caller: Yes.

    SM: Okay. And then you said you roasted them.

    Caller: I roasted them in the oven maybe 20 - 30 minutes and then put them in liquid like filled a roaster with liquid and put all the soup bones in it.

    SM: Okay and were the soup bones always covered with liquid.

    Caller: Yes.

    SM: Okay. And you cook that forever, you're making bone broth sort of.

    Caller: Right yep

    SM: Okay, well, I mean, how flavorful was the broth? I'm sure it was very flavorful, right?

    Caller: Yes, it was very good.

    SM: Okay, but you don't want to waste the meat that was on the bone. So, there must have been a fair amount of meat on the bones. (Yes). Did you even try tasting the meat?

    Caller: I didn't

    SM: Well, I understand you know after cooking it for a couple of days that it certainly will not have a lot of texture. But I do believe that it will have some flavor because it's been in that broth all that time. I'm a big fan of not wasting food. So, I would freeze it in small portions and then add it to recipes you know shredded with some seasoning you know highly seasoned, you know in places where you would have shredded meat like parts of a stuffing, in a burrito in a pepper with rice. You could stuff raviolis with it a little bit of cheese in there too. But I think the important thing you know in tacos, quesadillas is to taste it and then season it. Chris, what do you think?

    Caller: Ok

    CK: I was in. Now Sara is going to get mad at me. I was in Paris recently. (Yeah, I'm really mad at you) now she's mad at me. But I stopped at a place called Nanette which is a Vietnamese, and it has kind of street food, and they do banh mi sandwiches and some doughnuts and other things. But I was just thinking like if you took this meat, threw it in a sauté pan added a little soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, flavor, toasted sesame oil or whatever you want it and just heated it up. warmed up a bag, get split it in half. Use that as the meat, quick pickles, some carrots and onions takes about 15 minutes and some vinegar. You could put mayonnaise on it, or you could put any kind of sauce you wanted on it after that. Make a sandwich. I know in parts of Africa they also use ground beef to make sort of a beef sandwich that's similar to a banh mi but that's what I would do with it because it doesn't matter how flavorful the meat is because you're going to add a lot of flavor to the meat in a pan. Plus, you have everything else that goes in so that would be my way to do it. You know tacos or burritos or anything whether other flavors.

    SM: Right, I think probably it will actually have some flavor because it's been cooking in that yummy broth all that time.

    Caller: Great in terms of making the broth. Is that whole process necessary? Is that what you would recommend or the way that you would recommend to do a beef bone broth?

    SM: I don't think you need to cook bones for days. I don't know if it's necessary

    CK: Well stock is essentially bones usually roasted that are cooked in water. You know simmered in broth usually has some meat with it.

    SM: Yeah. We agree on that.

    CK: The reason people use bones was they were frugal, and they had a pot of water on the back of the stove all day. But you can make great stock with meat, you know, in a fraction of the time. For chicken stock for example, you can take three pounds of chicken wings, eight cups of water, a couple bay leave’s little salt. Throw in a pressure cooker, instant pot for an hour under high. Let it cool off for 20 minutes, open it and you have 12 cups of phenomenal broth. That will be better than a stock made with just bones. So

    SM: She didn't use bones with meat on it. Well, how long would you cook a beef broth? Would you cook it for a couple of days?

    CK: No, I cook it five or six hours.

    SM: So, you see we agree.

    CK: Oh no.

    SM: Yes.

    CK: Okay.

    SM: This is rare.

    CK: This is the last episode of Milk Street we're agreeing.

    SM: Maureen, you’ve brought us together Thank you so much.

    CK: But the point is you have the bones. So yeah, your techniques fine. I just wouldn't cook quite as long. But I think it's fine

    SM: I don’t think it’s necessary. Yeah.

    CK: Good for you. Yeah.

    Caller: Wonderful. Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

    SM: Same here Maureen, take care.

    CK: This is Milk Street Radio. If you need help with dinner or even dessert, give us a ring at 855-426-9843. That's 855-426-9843 or email us at questions at Milk Street Radio.com. Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

    Caller: Hi, this is Rebecca from Arlington, Massachusetts.

    CK: How can we help you?

    Caller: So, I recently found myself with a surplus of potatoes and I decided to make gnocchi, I made a triple batch. And I used a third of it that night and then froze the remaining two thirds and two portions. I froze for boiling it as well. And the ones that I put that might work great. But when I tried to boil one of the frozen portions later, it just disintegrated into like soggy mashed potatoes. And I was wondering what I might have done wrong. Did I freeze them incorrectly? Or defrost them incorrectly? Or is there something I could add with any of give themselves to make them freeze better?

    CK: Did you defrost them before cooking them?

    Caller: I did not.

    CK: That's good. Did you have a fairly small batch of gnocchi going into the water at the time, so you didn't overcrowd it?

    Caller: I think I just dumped the whole bag in was about a pound

    CK: That might be a problem and that, obviously they're frozen, right. So, they're going to reduce the temperature of the water pretty quickly. And if you did that, they might disintegrate instead of just cooking up. This is not my idea. But I read somewhere. If you let the gnocchi before you freeze them sit out at room temperature for an hour or two. They'll develop a little bit of a skin they'll dehydrate dry out on the outside. And that helps when you freeze them. It gives them you know sort of more of a firm exterior so, they won't tend to become mealy when you cook them. And that's something you might want to try. I would say cook them in batches and then let them sit for a couple hours when you make them before you freeze them. And that might help.

    SM: I agree with Chris. Because when you dumped that whole pound into the boiling water, it brought down the temperature immediately. Which means that they fell apart before they set up.

    Caller: When I get like frozen gnocchi’s from the supermarket though I generally just dump the whole thing in and it doesn't. They don't turn into mush.

    CK: Yes, but they probably have something in them.

    SM: Yeah, some sort of additive. Yeah.

    CK: Yeah, it might have potato starch added or something else.

    SM: Yeah. But meanwhile very impressive that you made your own gnocchi. That's a labor of love.

    Caller: Yeah, no, they were they were delicious.

    CK: You know, we just had at Milk Street. We actually made gnocchi with potato flakes, and flavors not as good but the texture is not bad. For a quick, easy, simple gnocchi it does work

    SM: It works.

    CK: I think we've exhausted everything we know about freezing and reheating gnocchi

    SM: Yes.

    Caller: I still have one batch of gnocchi left I can give it a try with that last batch that’s still frozen and see if these ones cook up better.

    SM: Good.

    CK: Take care. Thank you

    SM: Thanks, Rebecca.

    Caller: Thank you very much. Bye.

    SM: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

    Caller: My name is Susan.

    SM: Where are you calling from?

    Caller: I'm calling from Wynwood Pennsylvania.

    SM: How can we help you today?

    Caller: A few weeks ago, our daughter and son in law had a baby shower. They've since had the baby a beautiful baby boy, (mazel tov). Thank you. And I baked some blueberry lemon tarts, which I've done before. But I was a bit tired, and this recipe is from The Silver Palette. It requires you to squeeze a lot of lemons and it's very sour. It's a cup of lemon juice, and five tablespoons of grated lemon zest. So very sour, but you also put in sugar. So, I had made the crust and I put the filling in. And then I realized I hadn't put in the sugar.

    SM: Oh, dear.

    Caller: And remember, it's terribly sour and so, I thought, what do I do? Do I just scrap the whole thing after I'd done all this work? What you're supposed to do when the pie is done, you're supposed to also sprinkle powdered sugar on top. So that will that'll help a little bit. So, I sprinkled more than, I think the rest of the quarter. And then when we served it, I just said, let's get a gallon of vanilla ice cream and and that that seemed to do the trick. But I was wondering if there is a way to remedy something like this.

    SM: First of all, I applaud you for just carrying on. Did you tell anybody you made this mistake?

    Caller: Just a few select people, the other people who just gave them the ice cream and the pie

    SM: And did they eat it?

    Caller: Yes, they did.

    SM: Well, there you go. So that's rule number one in Julia Child's book. never apologize. Never explain. But I think what you did was 100%. Correct because confectioner's sugar, when it hits something wet, melts pretty quickly. And so, it got absorbed. And obviously, it did the trick along with the ice cream. So, you see you just intuitively knew what to do. So you go, that's amazing.

    Caller: I didn't know how much though, as far as the sugar I thought, you know, I mean, I knew how much the recipe called for, but I was just sprinkling it on, you know,

    SM: Willy nilly. Well, you know, you just made up your own thing, which is fine. And also, you could have of course, there was blueberries that were then going to be put on top of the lemon part, right?

    Caller: Yeah, after the filling is in then put the blueberries in

    SM: So, you did all the confectioners’ sugar stuff before you put the blueberries on.

    Caller: No, actually, I did put the confectionery sugar on top of the blueberries.

    SM: Well, it still worked all I was going to say she could stick a spoon in and take a bite and then put a couple more blueberries on top of where you took the bite. And that way, you know, where are you at. But anyway, Chris, any thoughts about this?

    CK: I do have a question about timing when exactly in this process did you remember, you did not add the sugar.

    Caller: I think when it was in the oven,

    CK: Oh well if it was before it was in the oven, you could have just poured the filling out and added the sugar.

    Caller: Right right no it was already baking in the tart

    CK: I have two suggestions; you could have put the confectioners’ sugar in two or three times while it's baking. And then every little addition would melt and that would be fine. The other solution is just bake it and then make a sugar syrup separately. You could flavor it with alcohol, you can flavor it with orange blossom water whatever you want, or some kind of flavored oil or extract and then pour that concentrated sugar syrup drizzle it over the top of the tart when it was cool. And that also would have worked I think pretty well. Yeah. And the last thing you should have done is to just say this is a new recipe from Alice Waters. You know she likes everything natural and not too sweet. And then you say Alice Waters, and everybody goes like okay, this is great. Or Yotam Ottolenghi’s new blueberry lemon custard tart. I think the sugar of all the things a sugar syrup would have been my solution to it.

    Caller: ‘I hadn't thought of that.

    CK: Well, the ice cream is not a bad I mean, in a pinch that was pretty smart

    SM: Because the dairy will also take down all that acid in the lemon

    CK: that was that was a good idea too

    SM: Yeah, no, I think you I actually just think you did a great job.

    CK: Yeah. No, don't flinch.

    Caller: Yeah. Okay. Thank you. I was wondering what the professionals would say

    CK: Never confess in the kitchen.

    SM: Never apologize. Never explain. Nope.

    Caller: Okay.

    CK: Thanks.

    Caller: Good advice. Okay, thank you.

    CK: Take care.

    SM: Bye bye

    Caller: Bye now.

    CK: You're listening to Milk Street Radio. Coming up Olia Hercules share stories and recipes from Ukraine. That's after the break

    Rose Hattabaugh: Hi, this is Rose Hattabaugh. Since I've started working at Milk Street my cooking has really gone up a notch. I'm making fast, easy, bold and really interesting food for my family. Learn more about Milk Street membership options at 177 Milk Street.com/plans

    CK: This is Milk Street Radio. I'm your host Christopher Kimball right now I'm joined by Ukrainian chef author and activist Olia Hercules. She recently published her fourth book, Home Food 100 recipes to Comfort and Connect. Just to note, we recorded this interview in November 2022 Olia welcome back to Milk Street.

    OH: Thank you so much, Chris, for having me again.

    CK: Last time we spoke, Ukraine was not at war things were quite different. So just let's just start with you and your family. I guess your brothers Sasha is now part of the defense unit fighting. Do you hear from him a lot? Or?

    OH: Yeah, I hear from my brother every every single day. Yeah, he joined the Territorial Army on the second day of the war. And he was actively fighting during the defense of Kiev. And luckily now he's, he's still in Kiev. And. And he's actually working in an office. So, he's still working for the army. But he's doing kind of like logistics and other things. So, it's a little bit less intense than in the very beginning.

    CK: You also wrote about your parents that, are they still in the Kherson region where they were? Or have they moved?

    OH: No, no, I insisted, in April that they leave. And they Yeah, they broke through kind of 19 checkpoints out of the Kakhovka region, and, and my mom was now in Berlin with my cousins. But my dad couldn't actually manage to live abroad. So, he went back to Ukraine. So now he's an area that's just above our home region in ____with his sister and my other cousin.

    CK: You know, it's so interesting what he said. Or your parents said, why should we leave our home? This is our home, our animals, our trees. We haven't done anything wrong. We're not going anywhere. It's I think people often ask, you know, if you're looking back in history of war, and why some people have a hard time leaving. And it's just for that reason, right? It's it's your home and must be very difficult to leave.

    OH: Yeah, of course. And, obviously, stuff was happening in the east, but where we were, it's been at peace. So, it's a very strange and horrific situation. Really.

    CK: Yeah. Tell us a little bit. I mean, you mentioned Ukraine and the geography, and you know, what parts at war and how the food's very different in different places. Could you just sketch that out for us?

    OH: Sure. So, Ukraine is huge. And it's very diverse. So, it's diverse in its landscapes. So up north, you have mountains and forests and ingredients and food is a little bit different from we're actually quite a lot different from central and southern Ukraine. So you'd get polenta dishes and mushrooms and earthy flavors. And then when you go down south where I'm from, it's almost Mediterranean. It's super-hot from April to October. We have the biggest juiciest watermelons, huge aubergines and peppers and massive tomatoes and loads of herbs, you know so it's, it varies quite a lot. And, yeah, in terms of the war, Ukraine has been at war since 2014. And Crimea, which is just 70 kilometers away from where I grew up, was annexed brazenly and the east of Ukraine has been well pretty much destroyed since then. And fighting continues there and and other parts of Ukraine, of course, as well.

    CK: Do you and your family and other people from Ukraine have a vision of how this ends in other words, you know, Zelensky is talking about pushing the Russians out entirely. Do you see a different end game to all of this when you talk to your friends and family?

    OH: To us, there's no other alternative. Not after they've murdered so many people and raised whole cities to the ground like Mirabel not after they've caused my family and friends leave the area where we lived peacefully where I grew up, you know, my parents had to give up their home. They had to give up their businesses. Everything, we lost everything, but we're not giving up I just don't see an alternative. We will come back.

    CK: in the 90s. You went to the Carpathian Mountains, and you talk about the holidays they are, you know, it sounds almost like a Disney movie, or I guess, it sounds fabulous. Could you just explain what that what that's like?

    OH: Sure. So, I grew up in the south of Ukraine in Kakhovka, which as I mentioned, you know, was a lot more kind of aggressively Soviet in its sense. So, traditions weren't really observed this much, you know, the language was, was lost to us. And, you know, religion wasn't really allowed all over the Soviet Union, but the further away from Russia you were, the more you were able to preserve. So, in the south and east of Ukraine, you know, all of the kind of Christmas celebrations and all of the color and tradition and that we read about in the books, we didn't see that it was very kind of lowkey, and you know, we hardly actually celebrated Christmas. So, in the 1990s, when I was about 10, we went on the kind of a pilgrimage to Western Ukraine to the Carpathian Mountains. So, you know, we went on the train from Kiev of and arrived in a kind of a fairy tale. We came out of the train, and it was snowy and there were mountains. You know, at night, we heard wolves’ kind of howling in the forest it was it was so new and amazing to us. But the most amazing thing was to see how Christmas was celebrated. What happened was in this wooden house where we were staying, there was this one big room which wasn't heated actually. And they put this big table out and big, you know, Christmas spread, 31:38____ stuffed cabbages and ______which is this beetroot and dried mushroom dish loads of breads, loads of different _____ which are like little bites, and you know, wine and Haruka, which is Ukrainian vodka, and then people arrived in beautiful embroidered coats. Some of them were wearing kind of like goat masks, and they were playing cymbals and violins and you know it was almost like a mini folk opera performance. It was it was incredible. I've never seen anything like that. And then this was repeated over and over again. So, for about seven days, actually, people kept coming and playing music, and they were fed and returned. And I don't know, to me, it just felt like an amazing sense of community, which, you know, despite having grown up in a communist country, which is supposed to be all about community, you know, I didn't feel that in the south of Ukraine. Everyone was suspicious of each other, almost, you know, there was, you know, in my mom's time, and my grandmother was, you know, spied on by her neighbors. You know what I mean, there was this culture of distrust and fear. And this was the first time that I witnessed community that was, you know, people living in the same place and supporting each other and having fun together as well. So that was an incredible experience that I'll never forget

    CK: You're listening to Milk Street Radio. My guest today is Ollie Hercules. Coming up, Olia shares how she has slowly made her way back to cooking over this past year of war, please stay with us. This is Milk Street Radio. Now let's get back to my interview with Ukrainian chef author and activist. Olia Hercules. Okay, let's talk about food. There are so many recipes here that I you know, I just love your cooking as you know, but this collection is is particularly interesting. One thing just to start, a lime leaf sandwich, white bread and butter with lime leaves and sprinkle with lemon juice. Tell me tell me about that.

    OH: Well, during the pandemic, I was supposed to write my fourth cookbook, which actually was supposed to be another travel book. I was supposed to repeat my Siberian grandmother's journey. So, my grandmother on my dad's side was from Siberia. And she traveled in the 1950s, to Pakistan, because Siberia was an extremely difficult place to be at the time. And on the way to Uzbekistan, she made my Ukrainian grandfather, and they had my dad in Uzbekistan, and then eventually they moved to Ukraine. So, I was going to do this whole trip, because I wanted to see, you know, what my grandmother went through. And then because of the first lockdown, I wasn't able to do that anymore. So, I was actually a little bit stuck. I've always thought of myself as a bit of an anthropologist as well, as a food writer, you know, I wanted to tell other people's stories I wanted to tell about different cultures. And my publisher said, well, you just have to write something from home. So, I decided to just write a cookbook, with 100 recipes, that were quite easy to cook at home and that would be liked by everyone, you know, kind of quite an easy, kind of like home food cookbook. And then we were doing loads of walking at that time because there was, you know, nothing, nothing to do we’re stuck at home. So, we walked in the street in June, and I just smelled something in the air. And it was extremely familiar. And I just thought, oh, my gosh, its linden trees, just like in Ukraine. And I thought, how could I not notice the smell in the three years that I've been living in this area? You know, I just became so much more observant during that spring and summer. And I wondered why there was so many linden trees in my part of London. And I came across Dorothy Hartley and her 1954 book, Food in England and that's where the scription of the sandwich comes with the with the linden brach’s and yeah, it was just so interesting Victorians in England really loved linden trees. And that's the first time that I made a connection. Now it's all of a sudden, my world in the UK, you know, my I've been living in Britain for the past 20 years. And my memories from Ukraine, kind of were able to join. And I guess that's where the idea came to continue with these essays, because it just felt so natural to write about these connections that I suddenly found.

    CK: You also talk about tops like, you know, turnip tops, carrot tops, etc. kohlrabi and make a paste out of it. So, I mean, that's one thing. I don't think we go to the supermarket take the tops off and throw them away right most of the time. So how would you make a paste or a pesto or whatever, or a sauce out of tops.

    OH: So, at home, people tend to throw away tops, whether it's carrots, leeks, or beetroot leaves, which I think is the highest crime because they're basically a free charred radish leaves, but actually, they are delicious and, and I found a paste called ____ from the region of Caucasus. And that's a really beautiful one. So, you get a few nuts, some oil, and traditionally they would use something like kohlrabi tops or raddish tops or any any of those kind of green leaves of root vegetables. And you'd blitz it all together, add some spices, some salt, and it's just a really nice thing that keeps in the fridge. so versatile and delicious. So yeah, decided to include it.

    CK: Another recipe concept, which is marinating in yogurt, you have lamb chops, marinated in yogurt and harissa. Does the marinating change the flavor or texture of the outside of the chop, you know marinades don't tend to get deep into meat is your why do you do it I guess my question.

    OH: Yeah, I think for for both of those reasons. I think it does. If you've got something like lamb cutlet or a lamb chop, I think that does get in quite cheap if you leave it for about 24 hours, but it definitely does tenderize as well. In that recipe that you mentioned I mix it with a little bit of harissa paste as well you can find it in most supermarkets,

    CK: Eggplant, you know until I discovered sort of the roasted or grilled eggplant in the Middle East. I never liked it much and then I realized it’s just amazing, but you steam it and then put a soy ginger dressing on it. So, steaming is your go to way of preparing eggplant, right?

    OH: It is I do love roasting it as well, but this is such an easy way of doing it. You literally just stick a whole eggplant into a steamer. You know close the lid and leave it there for I don't know 25 minutes half an hour, depending on the size of the aubergine until it's really really soft, and it doesn't look particularly attractive, you know, it shrivels up, but then you just split the top of it and kind of open it up revealing all of that beautiful flesh that gets cooked inside. And you put this sweet, sour, slightly spicy, and sesame seed dressing on top. And it's just the most beautiful thing and it's so easy to do, especially if you're a busy parent or just a busy person, you know, you don't have much time to you know, mess around with lunch or whatever.

    CK: Yeah, every time I grill I I'll just throw an eggplant on it and get it till it looks like it's it's defeated. Yeah, it's like it can't take any more. So, salads. One of the things I love is to because most people here you know, it's the same old same old, you have a radish pomegranate salad, an herb and sour cherry salad. Just talk about salads because I think people are not very creative about salads here.

    OH: Yeah, sure. So, you know, even though my project and my my trip to Uzbekistan or Central Asia didn't didn't happen, I was very much inspired by the dishes that my grandmother learned in Kurdistan and also a few cookbooks that I have lying around at home. So there's one called the Sweetwater salad which I think is such a beautiful name for it, you slice the tomatoes quite thin and you know how normally we don't want those kinds of vegetables to you know to bleed for the juices to run out but in this case you do so you soak them so all of this water from tomatoes oozes out and then you mix it with loads of different herbs like dal and coriander and purple basil if you have it and and then you mix it up I do add a tiny little bit of lemon or maybe vinegar or something and then it's a really beautiful salad to use with your grilled meats, actually and that's what how it would be traditionally used, you know, with a kebab or something and I love that one. And another one is an herb salad which you know, we we don't always think of herbs as the star of a salad you know, we think of it as an addendum you know, something that we add at the end or a garnish or something but actually in, in caucuses and in Central Asia herbs do have that protagonist quality. My dad lived in Azerbaijan with his family with his uncle and his Armenian wife for a year. And, and to him that was one of the brightest memories is how herbs were were served on the table as salad so like whole bunches of coriander, purple basil, whatever and people would just kind of like munch on them.

    CK: Let's talk cabbage. I was never I guess a fan of cabbage. I had a stuffed cabbage in Paris not too long ago that was absolutely to die for. Stuffed with finely minced sausage and other things. I had another dish in the Middle East in Israel it was a charred cabbage with a skordalia a Greek skordalia sauce. You obviously cook cabbage a lot. So is it time for cabbage. I mean, it just seems like this is one of the most overlooked ingredients of the supermarket that has just a lot of potential.

    OH: It's high time for cabbage. Definitely time for cabbage. Cabbage. I you know, when I wrote my first cookbook, Mamushka when when I was writing it so many people asked me oh, it's a book about Ukrainian food is it all about cabbage and potatoes and dumplings, which I you know, which actually developed quite a bit complex about and I just felt like oh my god, I have to prove the world that Ukraine is beyond brown food and beyond cabbage and potatoes and whatever. So, I was very keen on making sure that those people that love Ottolenghi food also of Ukrainian food and saw that we also use herbs a lot and there's loads of color and you know, seasonal fresh dishes, etc, etc. And then when I came to write Home Food, which is my fourth cookbook, kind of calm down about that my complex was cured. And also, I think Nigella Lawson's amazing essay about brown food really helped you know, in defense of brown foods. And I just thought you know what, it's it's cabbage time it's time to bring out all of those recipes all of those brown recipes that I was a little bit weirdly you know, embarrassed about but they're delicious. Why was I ever embarrassed, you know?

    CK: Does food and cooking help I mean that is it gives you comfort every day brings your family together. What role does food and cooking play for you given all the other things going on in your life right now?

    OH: Yeah, cooking has always been something that I used to kind of calm my nerves or you know, if there was ever a stressful time in my life doing something, especially if it was something a little bit more involved like making dumplings or bread, you know, I've always found it quite therapeutic meditative. To be completely honest with you, when the war started, I was completely dilapidated. For about three months, I couldn't eat, and I couldn't cook. In fact, I was really worried that I've lost that power that I've lost that resource that I had, you know, of something that could cure my mental state in some way. But then, when my parents left Ukraine, and they were safe in Europe, I actually went to meet them, and I cooked for them ahead of them arriving in Italy. And, and I regained that power I regained that ability to cook. And slowly slowly since then, I've been I've been cooking again and, and writing again and, and that that definitely helps to drag me out of the dark space that I inhabited straight after the war.

    CK: Well, it's, it's good for you, but it's also good for us because we I just love your books and I love your cooking and it's it's so there are two things about I love. The freshness of the approach for someone who's never been to Ukraine. But also, it's very much home cooking is you know, it's not restaurant cooking. There's a simplicity to it underneath that I really love so we're glad you're still doing it.

    OH: Thank you so much. Thank you for your support over the years you've been amazing.

    CK: Olia it's been a pleasure having you I wish you the best and your brother and parents also the best. And Ukraine all the best. Thank you so much.

    OH: Thank you Chris. Thank you so much everyone.

    CK: That was Olia Hercules her latest book is Home Food 100 Recipes to Comfort and Connect. You can learn more about all his latest projects and her activism on her Instagram page @Olia Hercules. You know my interview with Olia brings up a difficult question. Can one find joy in the midst of war, only his brother volunteered for the Territorial Army her parents were living in the Kherson region before they escaped to Berlin although her father has since returned, and Olia herself has been raising money for the war effort. Yet during our interview, we talked about the glory of cabbage, steaming eggplant and yogurt marinades. So, I think it's clear that even during life's worst moments food can deliver joy. It also proposes faith in the future. There's always the next meal. I'm Christopher Kimball and you're listening to Milk Street Radio. Now let's check in with contributor J Kenji Lopez Alt. Kenji, what are you up to this week?

    J Kenji Lopez Alt: Well, I thought we could talk a little bit about those bags of romaine lettuce, you know, the bags you buy that have like three heads of romaine lettuce.

    CK: Oh, yeah,

    JKLA: You use one of them for your Caesar salad. And then you have two heads leftover and you ended up like throwing them out because they wilt a week later. I wanted to talk to you about another way to use those heads of lettuce up (okay) which is going to sound weird if you I mean, I know you've been to China, but you blanch them until in boiling water and then serve them with like a garlicy oyster sauce. And it's, it's delicious. Well, because you know, when you go to when you go to Asia, the concept of raw lettuce is not that common, you know, anywhere you go in China, whether it's iceberg or romaine or other types of lettuce, you're going to find it either stir fried, or cooked into a soup or something. So, I find it's a really good way to use up those extra two heads of lettuce. Because they you know, they cooked down into two heads of lettuce will cook down into like a nice side dish for four people. And really, it only takes a matter of minutes. So, what I do is I start with in my wok. You can also do this in a sauté pan, of course. But I start with a wok and I and I saw a few cloves of minced garlic in a little bit of oil. And then I add about a tablespoon each of soy sauce and oyster sauce, and then maybe a quarter cup of water. So just to loosen it up. And then you know in a pot of boiling water, I just blanch the lettuce for a matter of seconds, drain it out, put it on a plate and then pour that sauce over the top and it's you know, comes together and minutes and I find it to be delicious. And you know, of course it doesn't just work with Romaine. You can also do with iceberg you could do with watercress; you could do with spinach. And then of course there's sort of classic Chinese stir fry vegetables like gai lan and bok choy and things like that as well.

    CK: Could you not blanch it and just quickly stir fry it with a sauce?

    JKLA: Oh, you absolutely could. Yeah, what I would do is I would roughly chop it, rinse it in the sink and then not even put it into a salad spinner but just kind of shake it dry so there's still water clinging to it, you know and so then you sauté your garlic in the wok with the oil and then you put your greens right in there and the water If it's clean to them, we'll help them kind of steamed through and wilt. The results, of course are a little bit different when you do it that way versus the blanching and saucing. But but yeah, either way works.

    CK: Yeah, I've noticed there two or three, sort of classic sauces you can make out of your pantry like that. And so, soy sauce a little toasted sesame oil, some mirin. Are there other quick sauce recipes you have in your head that people can throw together.

    JKLA: You know, one of my favorite ways actually is just garlic and ginger. So, I cut garlic into relatively, you know, not super thin slices. You know, maybe like an eighth of an inch or so. And then ginger, I just, you know, smash a few coins of it. And then I sauté that in oil. And then the sauce is really nothing more than just the garlic and ginger flavor, you know, and I cook it down, so the garlic is kind of a little bit, it's just slightly starting to brown. And then I just add a cornstarch slurry straight to that. So, about a quarter cup of water with a couple teaspoons of cornstarch, basically, you know not enough that you get a thick gloppy sauce, but just enough that when you add the greens to that, that garlic and ginger flavor that's coming into the oil, it turns into sort of an emulsified sort of glossy sheen that covers the vegetables.

    CK: So, cook your greens don't eat them raw and simple sauce of soy sauce and oyster sauce. gets the job done.

    JKLA: Yeah, I mean, and it means no more wilted romaine lettuce in your fridge.

    CK: Right. Absolutely. Kenji. Thank you.

    JKLA: You're welcome was nice talking to you.

    CK: That was J Kenji Lopez Alt. He's the chief culinary consultant for Serious Eats, a food columnist for the New York Times. also, author of The Wok Recipes and Techniques. That's it for today. You can find all of our episodes on Apple podcasts or wherever you do get your podcasts. You can learn more about Milk Street at 177 Milk street.com. There you can become a member and get full access to every recipe, access to all live stream cooking classes and free standard shipping from the Milk Street store. You can also find us on Facebook at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street on Instagram and Twitter at 177 Milk Street. We'll be back next week with more food stories and kitchen questions and thanks as always for listening.

    Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is produced by Milk Street in association with GBH, co-founder Melissa Baldino, executive producer Annie Sensabaugh, senior editor Melissa Allison. Producer Sarah Clapp, Assistant Producer Caroline Davis with production help from Debby Paddock. Additional editing by Sidney Lewis, audio mixing by Jay Allison at Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole Massachusetts. The music by Toubab Krewe additional music by George Brandl Egloff. Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Radio is distributed by PRX