Joe Yonan: Describe the flavors of Ukraine.
Olia Hercules: One of the most common ones -- and stereotypical ones -- is dill. My photographer, when we shot the book, said, "Olia, we should rename your book Dill: The Cookbook." There is a lot of dill; we use it in everything.
But actually the taste of Ukraine, especially the south end of Ukraine where I come from, is freshness. Loads of herbs, really balanced and complex flavors, like loads of sweet and sour, amazing produce -- these are the flavors of Ukraine.
There are no shortcuts. You can't use bad ingredients, because we don't have many spices to hide behind. You have to have amazing vegetables and really, really good, quality meat. You don't have to have it every day, but once a week, if you have some really amazing free-range organic pork, these are the flavors.
JY: I am fascinated by the ingredients that you talk about in your book. I thought I'd ask you about something that we all think we know here, which is the gherkin pickle. We think of them as these little vinegared pickles. But I think in your experience they're something much better than that.
OH: They are. We don't actually use much vinegar in Ukraine for pickling stuff. We ferment stuff, which is a great and trendy thing right now. When I saw this trend happening, I was just like, "Hold on a minute, this is something that I actually grew up with." [It was] because of necessity really; we didn't do it for health or for flavor. We just did it because Ukrainian food was so seasonal. We grew so many wonderful things. Then in winter we wouldn't be able to buy fresh produce anywhere, so we'd just ferment it.
JY: What do the fermented gherkins taste like compared with ours?
OH: My fermented gherkins taste of so many wonderful things. Most importantly, it tastes of wildness, in a way. We make a little brine and we infuse it with some dill blossom, so dill tops. If you can't find them, you can just use dill stalks. Then we use other aromatics like black currant leaves. If you can't find that, it doesn't really matter. The main thing is that you get a weak brine, so some salt and some spring water.
You put your gherkins into it, and you leave them out in your kitchen to grow a little bit funky for a couple of days. Then once you can see that they stop fermenting and the liquid is bubbling a little bit, you put it in the fridge.
The taste is just incredible. It tastes alive. If you keep them out for about 10 days, we call them nuclear -- nuclear in the best kind of way. They're so strong. It's not the vinegar kind of strong; it doesn't make you wince. It's just so deep in flavor. We love it.
JY: This might be the first book in a long time that I have seen call for margarine.
OH: When I sent my recipes to my publisher, I did say, "My family recipes include margarine in them. If you want me to take it out, I will, and we'll just substitute butter." My publisher is just so nice that they said, "Look, as long as you put a note in and just say, 'This is all we could afford during the Soviet Union, for example.' We want it to be as authentic as it was to your childhood." So that's why I left it in.
JY: It was the '80s. That's what people used.
I was so fascinated also to see you talk about sunflower oil. I had an unrefined sunflower oil for the first time. It was so nutty, and so much different from the boring ones that we usually see.
OH: In Ukraine unrefined sunflower oil is a real thing. Also in Georgia. It's just incredible.
My grandma lives opposite a place where they make it, so we just go there with our plastic water bottles and fill up. Then they smuggle it into the U.K.
It's so nutty. It just tastes of toasted sunflower seeds. I don't know if it's for everyone. Some people have been like, "It's almost like sesame seed. It's so strong." But you don't need much of it -- you just pour a little bit on your salad. I think it's wonderful.
JY: You're not typically using it for cooking then? It's a finishing oil?
OH: You can't use it for cooking. It's just to be used raw. You definitely can't use it for frying because it will burn.
Hercules' recipe: Garlicky Georgian Poussins (Photo: Kris Kirkham)
JY: If you had to pick a favorite recipe in your book, what do you think it would be?
OH: One of them is definitely the green borscht. You make a really wonderful, rich duck stock. Then you serve it with some sorrel leaves, loads of herbs and spring onions, and a little bit of chopped, soft-boiled egg. It's just such an amazing recipe.
Another one is probably the chicken tabaca, the Georgian pressed, garlic chicken. The reason why it's wonderful is because when you cook it in a pan, it has lots of garlic and butter in it to begin with. It gets confited in all the garlic and butter.
Then at the end you mix it with this incredible combination of herbs. You use red basil, dill, coriander and a little bit of tarragon. If you can't find red basil, normal basil will do. It sounds a little bit weird, but the combination of those herbs just makes it go pow. You just add it at the very end to the butter and the garlic, then you serve it with some bread. Imagine dipping your bread into that. It's a good dish.