“I always had this great association with gatherings and the food on the table,” says Bonnie Morales, chef and owner of Kachka, a Russian restaurant that joined the Portland food scene in April.
Morales, who grew up in Chicago, remembers a table as long as her family’s living room covered with food when her parents hosted parties and family get-togethers. Morales’ parents immigrated to the U.S. from what is now Russia during the Soviet Union era and they often held gatherings for members of their extended families who themselves were immigrating to the United States.
Zakuski, often referred to as Russian tapas, were among the many foods at the table. Zakuski include dishes of cold meat, pickled vegetables, cured fish and more. According to Morales, it is customary to eat zakuski with a shot of some type of beverage at the beginning of a meal.
“You can’t have zakuski without shots of something … In Russian homes, you’ll put Champagne or juice or sparkling water in a shot glass. It doesn’t have to be vodka. But to me, the zakuski go with the shots …” explains Morales. “You only take a shot if you give a toast. The toasts are the kind of backbone of the party and the celebration. So that’s just [a] natural part of that.”
Today Morales enjoys sharing Russian cuisine with the Portland community. However, she didn’t always appreciate the food her mother cooked while she was growing up.
“At the time I was embarrassed of the food I grew up eating … If you grow up in a household of a certain cuisine and culture that is not the one of the country you are living in, you want to integrate, so you kind of push that aside,” says Morales. “And I think that takes a maturity to embrace it again and I think that I am not alone. I think this is just what is happening to a lot of like-minded cooks now that are from first-generation homes.”
Morales moved to New York to work for a design consultancy after earning a degree in industrial design. She later decided to pursue her interest in cooking and attended the Culinary Institute of America.
Initially, Morales tried to apply techniques she learned in culinary school and at restaurants to the Russian dishes her mother made, but they never turned out quite right. “I really only got excited about it when Israel, my husband, started noticing it for what it was. It was the raw state, the way my mom was doing it. And I realized that there was something there I was totally overlooking,” she says.
Morales and her husband moved to Oregon in 2009 and had been planning to open Kachka ever since. At the restaurant, Morales cooks her family’s cuisine and she’ll call her mother for advice.
Morales believes that Russian cuisine is underrepresented in the U.S. in part because of the negative association related to food deficits and the poor quality of food during the Soviet Union Era. “People who immigrated here were leaving there to get away from that, so there are a lot of negative implications to it,” she explains, “and I think that maybe they themselves are not proud of it, even though at home all these people still cook the food they ate there, too.”
Morales also notes that the ingredients commonly used in Russian cuisine, such as potatoes, beets and carrots, are not quite as bold or flashy as those used in many other cuisines, such as fish sauce in Thai food. “It takes more work to make it shine,” she says, adding, “I think if you can take really beautiful ingredients and use that in combination with the traditional dishes, it really highlights it in a way that people who have been cooking their whole life take for granted.”
Morales invited us into her kitchen and showed us how to make a zakuski dish: herring under a fur coat, a colorful layered salad. To see how she makes it, watch the video above and then try out her recipe yourself.
Herring Under a Fur Coat (селедка под шубой)
Ingredients (Yields two 4” diameter terrines or one 8” diameter casserole)
- 1 medium beet
- 1 Yukon Gold or 2 large fingerling potatoes
- 1 small carrot
- 1 large egg, hard-boiled
- 1-2 tablespoons sweet onion, small diced
- 1 fillet of salted herring in oil (pickled herring can be substituted)
- 1-2 tablespoons dill, rough chopped plus a couple sprigs for garnish
- ¼ cup mayonnaise (preferably homemade)
- Kosher salt
- 4” diameter ring mold. Can easily be made in a small glass Pyrex or other similar dish.
- Roast beet wrapped in foil on a sheet tray at 350 degrees F until knife tender at the center (about 1-2 hours).
- Place potato and peeled carrot in saucepan and cover with water. Cook on stovetop until knife tender.
- While vegetables are cooking, make the herring mixture: Remove fillet from package and reserve 2 tablespoons of the oil. If using pickled herring, you will need 2 tablespoons of sunflower or vegetable oil. Dice the herring fillet into ¼” pieces. In a small bowl, mix together the diced herring, chopped dill, diced sweet onion and reserved oil. Set aside.
- Peel the hard-boiled egg. Separate the white from the yolk. Using a spoon or your hand, push the whites through the mesh of a sieve. Place in small bowl. Clean the sieve and now use the same technique on the yolks. Place in a separate bowl.
- When cool enough to handle, peel skin off potato and grate with box grater. Place in small bowl. Clean box grater and grate carrot. Place in another small bowl. When beet is cooked through and cool enough to handle, peel skin and grate with box grater. Place in a third small bowl.
- Place mayonnaise in small bowl and add 1 tablespoon of the grated beets. Mix together.
- Before assembling, check to make sure all the cooked vegetables have cooled to room temperature.
- Place ring mold in center of plate.
- Place ¼ cup of grated potato inside of mold. Using the back of a spoon, smooth out the potato so it is level. Season with salt.
- Add ¼ cup of herring mixture. Make level with spoon.
- Add two tablespoons of grated carrot. Make level with spoon.
- Now add ¼ cup of grated beet and level. Season with salt.
- Add 2 tablespoons of beet mayonnaise mixture. Smooth with spoon.
- Garnish with sieved egg white, egg yolks and reserved dill sprig. Carefully pull ring mold straight up.
- Wash ring mold and dry with towel. Repeat assembly steps to make a second terrine.
- Serve immediately.
Using the same layering technique, this recipe can be assembled in a casserole dish ahead of time instead of a ring mold. Wait until serving to garnish with egg and dill.
- Make your own mayonnaise if you have the time. The flavors and textures of homemade mayonnaise are very different from store-bought.
- Use salt-cured herring instead of pickled if available.
- Use organic vegetables.
- Use a ring mold to shape the salad for the presentation if available. Eat with your eyes.