With Olia Hercules‘ third cookbook, Summer Kitchens, she delves into the rich history and culinary tradition of the use of litnya kuhnia or “summer kitchens” in Ukraine. These small buildings were usually situated near the garden and became a place for the preserving, fermenting, and pickling of the harvested fruits and vegetables from the surrounding garden. A practical place where families would work to process epic amounts of vegetables and fruits to last them throughout the winter months. More importantly, as Hercules points out, “It symbolized the core, the backbone of life: it was both a place of hard labor and a sancutary.”(11) The summer kitchen belonging to Hercules’ own grandparents is memorialized on the cover in the most beautiful illustration of a cherry tree growing from a small building (Hercules’ grandfather built the summer kitchen around a beloved cherry tree growing in the yard).
Living in London now with her family, Hercules became intrigued with the idea of how these buildings were traditionally used and with how people use them in modern day. Summer Kitchens is Hercules’ personal journey across the Ukraine, which works to document a tradition that is slowly disappearing. This cookbook comes together with beautiful photographs, rich stories, and humble, soulful recipes. I am delighted to read and cook from Summer Kitchens because I recognize so many of the recipes as ones that I ate at my grandparent’s table growing up. Due to political reasons, my father’s family immigrated to Canada from Western Ukraine during the early part of the last century. They brought with them cultural traditions and heritage which was passed on to my sister and I both at school and around their supper table.
There’s a string tied tightly around my heart that is connected to my Ukrainian roots, and as I learn to cook familiar recipes from Hercules’ cookbooks, I feel a tug on that string. Growing up, I took all the Ukrainian food I enjoyed for granted and, it wasn’t until the birth of my daughter that I realized that I wanted to impart these dishes to her. What Hercules offers is a primer on the essential recipes across the different regions of Ukraine. So, while I’ve learned to make recipes that I’m familiar with, I’ve also learned to cook different regional Ukrainian dishes. As with her first cookbook, Mamushka, Summer Kitchens continues with her journey across the culinary landscape of Ukraine. I feel that Summer Kitchens and Mamushka exist as companion pieces — containing essential context, recipes and stories.
Hercules is a skillful storyteller — one of the things I treasure most about her books is her ability to discuss tradition and food in a captivating way. Hercules also gives space in her book for others to share their memories of summer kitchens. Not able to visit all the regions of Ukraine, she asked for people to send in first-hand experiences of summer kitchens. The book ends with these beautiful recollections: “The letters were like memory capsules, bursting with warmth and the bittersweet longing that Ukrainians call tuga.”(317)
Hercules is a champion of Ukrainian cuisine which is regionally rich, not to mention delicious. The cookbook is organized into seven chapters: Fermenting, pickling, + preserving, Breakfasts + bites, Broths + soups, Bread, pasta, + dumplings, Vegetables, Meat + fish, and ending on a sweet note with Cakes, desserts, + pastries. At the opening of each chapter, Hercules’ offers information, as well as insight in the form of beautifully written accounts of how each chapter relates to the following recipes. And, as I’ve cooked through Summer Kitchens, I’ve been doing my own reminiscing. I’m familiar with many of the recipes — varenyky, holubtsi, nalesniki, babka, kutya — because they are ones like what my Ukrainian Canadian grandmother would make and serve to us. She would use ingredients from her kitchen garden to make delicious meals. Flavours are simple, dishes are humble yet each one celebrates what is grown and lovingly tended to in these gardens.
One of my favourite recipes in the book is the one for making Steamed Doughnuts. While my grandmother made a similar kind which she filled with poppyseed paste or prunes, Hercules offers a version equally as delightful, filled with bilberries or blueberries. Dipped in butter after the steaming is complete, then rolled in brown sugar and toasted nuts, these buns are sublime. They’re a family favourite — my dad has told me the story of how, as a child, he would secretly help himself to grandma’s doughnuts so that he could sell them at school!
Hercules also offers interesting variations for varenyky (a dumpling akin to pierogi). I enjoyed trying her spelt dough to make her Spelt Varenyky w/ Kraut and Caramelized Onions. The spelt dough gives the varenyky a pleasantly chewy texture and, the combination of sauerkraut and caramelize onion is mouth-wateringly good. I served them generously coated in butter with a side of pickled jalapenos. While the women in my family roll the dough out into a thin sheet, then use a circular cookie cutter to cut out many varenyky at once, Hercules rolls her dough into a sausage shape, then cuts the dough log into even pieces. Each piece is then rolled out into a circle — I found I liked this way of making varenyky much better because there’s no gathering extra dough to re-roll (rolling out dough is my least favourite task). I also tried her berry-filled variation while making the dough used in the Dumplings with Beans and Potatoes recipe. Varenyky are the epitome of comfort food to me. Filled with just about anything you can imagine, they’re a perfect food. From reading her essay “On Varenyky” that’s in this book, I know this is a beloved dish for her too. She decides that her mother’s varenyky would be her “death row dish” and if I were asked to choose mine, I think I would decide on varenyky as well.
As Hercules tours the home cook through these modest summer kitchens, she showcases the best of regional Ukrainian cuisine. While I’ve used Summer Kitchens to reclaim a bit of my Ukrainian culinary heritage, other home cooks can use her simple techniques and seasonal ingredients, as well as the visually eloquent images by Elena Heatherwick and Joe Woodhouse to vicariously travel through the Ukrainian countryside. Might I suggest that if you’re inclined to pick up a copy of Olia Hercules’ Summer Kitchens, then you should also help yourself to a copy of Mamushka which also offers Hercules’ signature narrative style along with delicious Ukrainian recipes. Both are books that I treasure.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Weldon Owen and Olia Hercules for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.