Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking
Bonnie Frumkin Morales with Deepa Prichep
Flatiron Books, 2017
Bonnie Frumkin Morales would like you to know that this is not a Russian cookbook. She points this out within the book and also in interviews, because her family is actually from Belarus, not Russia, the country. However, in her book Kachka, and at her Portland restaurant by the same name, she offers an overview of Russian food (basically any dish from the former “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”, which, to be fair, is a bit much to fit on your restaurant signage) that will call for a rethink of everything you thought you knew about Russian cuisine.
Morales grew up in the USA, with no ties to her parents’ homeland other than her mother’s versions of the traditional dishes (ie. a sorrel soup made with spinach because she could never find sorrel in Chicago). It was only when she brought home her now-husband Israel, who charmed her mother by asking questions about the food, that she had an ah-ha moment about the importance of her family’s food and culture.
Given the scope of the former Soviet Union, with climates that range from tropical to arctic, the scope of Russian cuisine is much wider than vodka, borsch, and blinis. I certainly never thought of a crayfish boil with corn and potatoes as Russian food, but it’s in here along with plenty of dishes that North Americans would cook on a grill or barbeque.
Kachka offers a huge section of hot and cold zakuski (think Russian tapas) which make up every gathering. Morales offers these as a 25-dish tasting menu at her restaurant. These range from salads to pickles to cold, cured meats to pickled eggs, and caviar. Morales provides an informative aside on the differences between caviar and roe (all fish eggs are roe, but not all roe is caviar…), and the book is full of sharp, witty graphic spreads like “how to Tetris your table” (to make room for all the zakuski – hint, if you have room for a centrepiece, you don’t have enough food), and a hilarious flowchart to identify “things wrapped in dough”.
In fact, this is the first cookbook I’ve come across where the headnotes are worth reading just on their own. Morales is informative and incredibly funny and this, to my mind, makes the recipes that much more interesting.
There is a big section on vodka and vodka cocktails. This is the only chapter I really skipped over, as I’m a devoted gin drinker, but some of these do look interesting.
Usability (hardcover version): Good to very good. Recipes are concisely-written and straightforward. Ingredients are mostly accessible (fresh sorrel may still be hard to find at times, but things like beets, buckwheat flour, and caviar are everywhere). The text is a fine font on a light grey background so it can make for some squinting if your kitchen doesn’t have great lighting (this is disappointing because otherwise I find these recipes to be ones I really want to try), full line breaks between steps in the directions. No metric measurements included.