Potatoes get all the press, but mushrooms are Russia's true obsession.
"Other than getting drunk and punching each other," Russian-born novelist Gary Shteyngart told The New York Times in 2013, "mushroom hunting is what we Russians love most."
When chef Bonnie Frumkin Morales' father came to Chicago from his homeland of Belarus, he thought his love affair with mushrooms was something he'd have to leave behind. In Chicago, mushrooms only really grow in basements.
But then Morales followed her brother to Portland and started Kachka, the Russian restaurant on Southeast Grand Avenue that WW named our 2014 Restaurant of the Year. It turns out, wild mushrooms are a heritage that Oregon and Russia share in abundance.
"That's why it's great that so many Russians live in the area," Morales says. "There are forests. There are mushrooms. My dad used to talk longingly of lisichki. When I got older I learned they were chanterelles, and when I moved here and realized how abundant they are, it went from a thing he talked about poetically and longingly into something he could go hunt for."
The homestyle chanterelle and potato dish Morales makes for her own Thanksgiving isn't one she has served at her now-famous restaurant, the first Russian restaurant in generations to capture the national imagination—named among the best new restaurants in America by both Bon Appetit and GQ.
She's now sharing the recipe in her new cookbook, Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking (Flatiron Books, 400 pages, $40), alongside how-tos on other former-Soviet-empire treats like tender lamb-filled dumplings, infused gins and vodkas, shashlik skewers and Russian-style crawfish boils.
Almost unbelievably, Kachka is the first major Russian cookbook published in America in 27 years. The last, a Beard Award-winning book from 1990 called Please to the Table, has long been out of print. And even in Portland, with a strong population from the former Soviet states, few spots serve the cuisine outside of the restaurants started by fellow Belarusians Morales and Vitaly Paley.
"Definitely, there's an identity crisis of low self-esteem," Morales says. "The Soviet Union did some real damage as far as foodways and supply. That affects the psyche. People who emigrated at that time, having that as a backdrop—you want to be American, why would you want to stick to your Soviet guns if there was never any food on the table?"
Kachka is Morales' "message in a bottle," she says, her way of trying to bring the hospitality and cuisine she grew up with into the mainstream of American culture—in much the same way as Italian or Chinese food before it.
Her book, published last month, combines the traditions of Morales' own family with the abundance of the modern food market, with equal attention to Russian food traditions like the "tetris" of filling your table with zakuski drinking plates, the wonders of the pelmenitsa dumpling mold, and a flow chart of the many, many things that can fill a dumpling.
But the chanterelle and potato dish we're sharing here is of particular significance to Morales. In part, it's the story of how she came to Portland after her brother moved here, when he'd bring bags of precious lisichki back from Oregon for the holidays. It's also a special showcase for the mushroom prized by her father.
"You can't ever quite capture their flavor," she says of delicate chanterelle mushrooms. "Braising them with sour cream, the cream absorbs all that flavor. It can't go anywhere—it amplifies the mushrooms, and that cream is what the potatoes absorb."
But even with the abundance of chanterelles in Portland markets, Morales says it's hard to convince her father not to barrel out into the forest to look for them.
"He tries to go out at least once a season. It's a fun thing," she says. "I'm always super-paranoid, and my dad is not. I'm always dreading every mushroom, checking the internet. He says, 'I know this mushroom from Belarus.' He just wants to eat them, and there's lots of arguing. Usually I win, because no one wants to be the guy who kills his whole family. We're in the Northwest. I can get chanterelles for eight bucks."
Here's the recipe Morales cooked her own family for the holidays. If there's a cold snap and chanterelles are gone from the stores for winter, Morales says winter yellowfoots—also known as funnel chanterelles—are a great substitute.
The following is excerpted from Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking by Bonnie Frumkin Morales and Deena Prichep:
My brother is a 1990s hippie: toured with Phish every summer, wore the same Mexican poncho for weeks on end. In 2000, he followed his hacky-sack-playing brethren to Portland. He was the first in my very tight-knit extended family to move from Chicago, and this was viewed with much skepticism—why would he choose this wild Western outpost? It turned out he had good reason—in addition to fine beer, good food and actual civilization (who knew?), the Pacific Northwest is absolutely overflowing with forest treasures like chanterelles.
Chanterelles, or lisichki in Russian, are highly coveted in the motherland. My brother would bring bucketloads of them back to Chicago whenever he visited, hitting the farmers market on the way to the airport to arrive with a sort of peace offering. My mother would instantly snap them up and cook this dish.
Chanterelles have a delicate taste, and take well to a hearty-yet-gentle preparation. The cream works its way into the mushrooms, the mushroom flavor suffuses the potatoes, and everything just becomes deliciously rich and transformed. Don't think about adding any other ingredients to this dish—the beauty is in its simplicity, letting the fragile flavor of chanterelles come through undisputed.
BRAISED CHANTERELLES AND POTATOES
(лисички тушеные в сметане с картошкой)
SERVES 4 TO 6 AS A MAIN DISH
• 2 pounds chanterelles
• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
• 1½ cups heavy cream
• 1½ cups smetana or European-style sour cream
• 1½ tablespoons kosher salt
• 2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1½-inch chunks
• Fill a large bowl or salad spinner with water, then thoroughly clean the mushrooms by dunking them in and vigorously swishing them around to shake loose any debris. Remove quickly, and repeat the process with fresh water until all the mushrooms are clean. Spread the mushrooms out on clean dish towels to dry.
• Tear any very large chanterelles into halves or quarters. Heat a medium-sized Dutch oven or heavy-sided pot over medium heat, and melt the butter. Add the mushrooms and cook down, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms give off their liquid and it mostly evaporates, about 10 minutes (you can cover the pot until the liquid comes out, so that the mushrooms don't scorch, but then remove the cover to help the liquid cook off).
• While the mushrooms are cooking, whisk together the heavy cream, smetana and salt. When the mushrooms have cooked down, pour in the cream mixture, and stir everything together. Add the potatoes and stir again, coating everything with the braising liquid. Bring the mixture to a simmer and partially cover (leave a small crack to let steam escape), then reduce the heat until it's just high enough to maintain the gentlest possible simmer. Simmer for 2 to 3 hours, or until the potatoes and cream have both turned a light golden brown, and the liquid has cooked down a bit but is still saucy. Check it once an hour or so to see that things are moving along (no need to stir). Serve hot, with a bit of crusty bread to sop up the sauce if desired.
Excerpted from the book KACHKA by Bonnie Frumkin Morales. Copyright © 2017 by Bonnie Frumkin Morales. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved.