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Kachka: a ‘Celebration in the face of harshness’

Chef Bonnie Frumkin Morales named her restaurant after the word that saved her grandmother’s life: Kachka.

The personal history Morales recounts in her first cookbook, Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking, stirs into darker times we’d rather forget, but not without a deep sense of hope and perseverance. This makes for a cuisine that is enticing in its story, flavor and presentation. Kachka is also the winning cookbook of this year’s Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks hosted by recipe site Food52.

Morales’ grandmother, Rakhil Altshuler, lived in a small Belarusian town, one where in 1941 the town’s Jews were rounded up to dig the hole for all 963 of them to be buried. But Rakhil donned all her clothes, kissed her family goodbye, wrapped her baby tight and snuck out under the wire fence. A day later the remaining 961 Jews were dead.

She walked for two months, lost her child to starvation and persisted until being stopped by a Nazi warden. Her skin was the color of a Belarusian Jew, but she professed to be Ukranian. “If you’re from Ukraine,” he demanded, “How do you say ‘ootka’ (duck) in Ukranian?” Rakhil didn’t know.

She risked it, replying with the Belarusian/Yiddish word: kachka. This won her the freedom to pass on and join the partisan resistance.

Morales’ family story of departure continued with her father’s leaving of the Soviet Union to emigrate with his wife and son to America for a life in Chicago. A year later, Morales writes, she was born.

There was no contest as to the name Morales would use when opening her Russian restaurant in Portland — a gutsy decision in its own right. “Kachka is shorthand for the courage of all these journeys,” she writes, “and my own mission to bring the food, stories and feelings of all these threads of the Russian experience to an entirely new table.”

But, Morales writes, “THIS IS NOT A RUSSIAN COOKBOOK.” (All-caps her own.)

OK, but then what is this food?

She calls them soulful recipes, some straight from her mother. Latvian and Georgian dishes alongside her own interpretations, and introducing Northwest ingredients to “foods from the former Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics” (too much of a mouthful), Morales opted to categorize her plates under the larger arch of “Russian.”

The first 45 pages of recipes in Kachka are dedicated to beverages — and by “beverages” I mean vodka.

The top of the dinner menu at Kachka reads: “How to eat like a Russian.” Step 2, fill each guest’s glass with the beverage of their choice, “like vodka, or maybe vodka.”

“There are so-o-o-o many vodka recipes in here!” declared my friend Kyla, a fellow Piglet fan, “and I want to make them all!” — tarragon vodka, horseradish vodka, chamomile vodka, dill flower vodka, (the list goes on) and cocoa nib vodka for making a Black/White Russian.

There’s plenty of gin, too. Beet gin for a Red Heering pairing beet infused gin with cherry heering, and grapefruit gin for the Pinko Commie Bastard, a blend of Aperol, bitters, grapefruit and gin, a cocktail Morales writes is so perky it deserved a “slap-in-the-face name.”

My friend Debbie was charged with cooking from Kachka for our annual Piglet dinner celebration. “Careful,” she said returning the book to me, “There are quite a few Post-its in there.”

I’d say! I don’t know why she didn’t just highlight the entire book in yellow. She still hasn’t narrowed down what to make.

But I know. (All of it.)

The food all looks ridiculously good: pickled pattypan squash, beet caviar stuffed eggs, Dungeness crab piroshki. And golubtsi, stuffed cabbage rolls, very like the recipe that my family clammers for, the dish we all beg Grandma to make over and over again. All with beautiful photography, curious ingredients and kitschy names.

“People have been known to cry over their bowls of golubtsi at Kachka,” Morales writes, “overcome by deep-seated memories of babushkas long passed.”

My grandma is alive and well, but I almost cried, too, when I saw this humble recipe included in Morales’ book. Ground meat of lamb, pork and beef is stuffed into leaves of green cabbage, caramelized in a hot skillet, smothered in a sauce of carrots, onion, garlic, tomatoes and lingonberry jam (you read that right, think what ketchup does for a meatloaf sauce) roasted, then lovingly cradled on a plate and topped with smetana — a sort of sour cream meets creme fraiche. It’s the spirit of dishes like this that fill the pages of Kachka and the plates of Morales’ restaurant.

Morales describes her food as “a celebration in the face of harshness,” and guests of her restaurant respond to this. Her cookbook offers the same, and this spirit of celebration is tangible in each recipe, photo and anecdote. Kachka is the much-deserved winner of Piglet 2018, and I will be rooting for Morales to win again, as she also is a nominee for the James Beard Award for Best Northwest Chef.

Who should buy this?
Anyone with a love of soulful family recipes. Home cooks looking to bring something new to the table.

Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking by Bonnie Frumkin Morales
Flatiron Books // $40

Black White Russian _credit Leela Cyd

Black/White Russian

​Morales uses her own cacao nib vodka here, Portland’s New Deal Coffee Liqueur and Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters. Thankfully, since we’re Northwest, too, these can be easily sought out. Morales promises the vodka is deep, rich and bittersweet. Perfect for the perfect Black or White Russian. I just dare you not to channel The Big Lebowski’s “The Dude” ​while sipping one of these. Yields 1 drink.

1½ ounces cacao nib vodka
¾ ounce coffee liqueur
5 drops Bittermens Xocolatl Mole​ ​Bitters​

For White Russian add​:
½ ounce simple syrup​
2 ounces half-and-half

For Black Russian: Pour vodka, coffee liqueur and bitters into an ice-filled mixing glass, and stir for 5 seconds. Strain into an old-fashioned glass, then add ice. Serve with bar straws for stirring.

For White Russian: Follow directions above for Black Russian, but add the simple syrup to the stirred ingredients. After straining and adding ice, gently top with the half-and-half.

Cacao Nib Vodka

2 tablespoons cacao nibs
1 750-milliliter bottle of vodka
1 tablespoon simple syrup

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Place the nibs on a rimmed baking sheet, and toast them for 5 minutes (they’ll begin to smell delicious). Remove from the oven and let cool slightly, then place them in a quart-sized mason jar and pour the vodka over them. Reserve the vodka bottle for the finished product. Screw on the lid and let steep for 1 week in a dark, cool place.

After steeping, carefully pour the simple syrup into the reserved bottle. Strain the vodka from the nibs into the bottle using a fine-mesh strainer and funnel. Discard the nibs. Close the bottle and shake to combine. Freeze for at least 1 hour before serving.

Golubtsi_credit Leela Cyd

Golubtsi

“I couldn’t help tinkering just a bit,” Morales writes, “but these are pretty much just exactly what my mama makes. It’s not the most visually arresting dish, but I’m OK with that. These are never coming off the menu.​” Cheers to that!​ You can find lingonberry jam at Russian markets (the smetana, too) or sometimes hiding in the grocery jam aisle. Yields 12-14 rolls.

1 large cabbage, or 2 medium

For the sauce:
High-heat oil, ​like sunflower oil
1 medium carrot, shredded on the large holes of a box grater
1 medium yellow onion, sliced in thin half-moons
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
1 cup lingonberry jam
½ cup water
Kosher salt

Place the cabbage(s) in a stockpot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook at a rolling boil for 10 to 15 minutes until the leaves soften (larger will need to cook longer), then remove and allow to cool. Peel and discard the outermost leaves (they get a bit blitzed in cooking), then separate the remaining leaves, leaf by leaf if you’re left with something about the size of a baseball.

With a paring knife, shave down any thick ribs, so that the leaves are pliable. Take the trimmed ribs and any too-small-to-stuff inner leaves, and slice them to the same thickness as your onions. Set aside.

Make the sauce: Heat a large pot over a medium flame. Add enough oil to coat the bottom, then add the carrot, onion, garlic and cabbage trim. Saute, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables soften and the onions turn translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and jam, along with the water.

Increase the heat to bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce it until it’s just high enough to maintain a healthy simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes to combine the flavors. Add salt to taste (you’ll have to be somewhat aggressive to counteract the sweetness). While the sauce is simmering, prepare the filling of your choosing.

Meat filling
½ pound ground pork
½ pound ground lamb
½ pound ground beef
2 cups cooked white rice
1 tablespoon kosher salt

Place the ground meats in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and mix until uniform, about 30 seconds. Add the rice and salt, and continue mixing to combine.

For the assembly:
High-heat oil ​like sunflower oil
Smetana or European-style sour cream
1 handful fresh dill, coarsely chopped

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Grab the largest casserole dish/dutch oven/roasting pan you have, and lay down about one-third of the sauce on the bottom. Set aside.

Take one of the precooked cabbage leaves on a clean work surface, and place about ⅓ cup of the filling in the center (the exact amount will depend upon the size of the leaf — you want to be able to form a neat little package). Roll up the cabbage leaf tightly around the filling, burrito style. When you’ve made 3 or 4 in the same fashion, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat.

When the skillet is hot, pour in enough oil to coat the bottom, and place the stuffed cabbage parcels in it, seam side down. Let them cook for a few minutes per side, until golden brown — this helps seal the bundles, and also imparts a delicious caramelized flavor, so don’t skimp! When browned, transfer them to your waiting sauce-lined dish. Repeat with the remaining cabbage and filling. If your dish isn’t large enough to hold all the rolls, you can pile some of them on top in a second layer.

When you’ve finished filling and searing all of the cabbage rolls, pour the remaining sauce over the top. Cover the pan with a lid, then transfer to the oven. Bake for 1 hour, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake another 3 hours​.

Serve hot, garnished with a dollop of smetana and a sprinkling of fresh dill.

Recipes reprinted from Kachka by Bonnie Frumkin Morales reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. Photography by Leela Cyd. 

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