London author and chef Olia Hercules, born in Ukraine, has been interviewed by many media outlets in the United Kingdom lately, not so much for her very good new cookbook, “Home Food: 100 Recipes to Comfort & Connect,” as for her activism about the war in her homeland. Since Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February, Hercules has shared her outrage, frustration, deep sadness, worry, and anger on her Instagram page, writing long, personal posts to her now 147,000 followers.
Soon after the invasion, she announced the formation of #CookForUkraine, which she started with several others, including her dear friend and fellow cookbook author, Alissa Timoshkina, another Londoner, who is from Russia. Cook for Ukraine, which donates funds to Unicef and Choose Love Ukraine, asks home cooks and chefs to make dinners with donations to the charity. The group has raised over $1.8 million. The founders hope this will get medicine and food to children and families, helmets and other supplies to soldiers.
In the August 2022 issue of British Vogue, in a story on the 25 most influential women of the year, Hercules is listed as “Chef & campaigner” and photographed with a large sunflower, which grows in profusion in the Kherson region in the south of Ukraine, where she was raised. “Even when Ukraine is free, I’m not going to stop my activism,” she was quoted in the profile. “I’m a changed person.”
Kherson, she writes, is the fruit and vegetable bowl of Ukraine. In her posts, you see fields of sunflowers, market vendors, and family dinners outdoors from visits she’s made home over the years. Her brother, Sasha, is in the Territorial Defense Forces, and is responsible for food logistics for Kyiv soldiers. She told the British magazine the New Statesman that she insisted that her parents leave their home, which they did reluctantly (both own businesses and were trying to help employees). They had to pass through 19 Russian checkpoints.
“Home Food” is Hercules’s fourth book, a compilation of recipes from her years in Cyprus, where she went to live when she was 12; from Italy, where she studied; from London, where she lives with her husband, photographer Joe Woodhouse, and two children; and from her home in Ukraine. She was a journalist before becoming a cook and worked for the Ottolenghi group.
The cookbook has QR codes where instructions might be tricky for readers, so you can to click on them with your phone and watch short videos of Hercules making recipes, including dumpling dough, Sardinian ravioli filled with nettles or spinach and ricotta, and a pumpkin and orange kolach, a braided bread shaped into a round and sprinkled with seeds, which she describes as a circular challah.
They’re beautiful videos. All the photos in the book were shot by Woodhouse and they’re very simple, nicely lit, with a homey quality. Hercules is often photographed with her long braided hair tucked under a flowered Ukrainian scarf or a white blouse with embroidered flowers.
She offers two eggplant recipes with unusual techniques. One is a whole eggplant that steams over water for half an hour or more. When the flesh is tender, you split them lengthwise and while they’re hot, add a dressing of honey, rice vinegar, lime, soy sauce, sesame oil, sesame seeds, mint, and scallions.
The other is something her brother, Sasha, makes when he’s not at the front. He peels strips off eggplants, cuts them into cubes, and fries them in a dry nonstick skillet (Hercules uses cast-iron). Lacking oil, you’d think they’d stick to the pan, but as soon as they brown, the cubes release themselves. When they’re cooked, oil goes into the pan, but the eggplants aren’t soaked in it, as they would be if you fried them in oil initially. The remaining ingredients are red onion soaked in lemon juice, ripe tomatoes, feta, herbs such as cilantro, dill, or basil, and a drop of sesame oil. It’s a cross between French ratatouille and Sicilian caponata.
In the recipe for Potatoes of My Childhood, she writes that her mother asked her, “Is this even a recipe?” You cook sliced potatoes and onions in a deep skillet with butter and oil and let them brown on the bottom. You turn them “in one big sweep,” she instructs, and keep doing this until the onion is translucent and the potatoes are crispy in spots, soft in others.
A wild card is an Azerbaijian recipe called khingial. She alters it somewhat for her vegetarian husband, tossing dark, leafy greens with homemade, diamond-shaped noodles, yogurt, and breadcrumbs (a QR code walks you through rolling and cutting the dough).
This is an eclectic mix from Hercules’s travels and family. You’ll find a Balkan-style gratin of potatoes, tomatoes, and bell pepper baked with whipped feta; a Central Asian plov, rice studded with a little lamb, carrots, and onions; a beautiful stone-fruit cake for plums, apricots, or cherries.
Hercules wrote the book during the pandemic. About her three earlier volumes, “Mamuska” (2015), “Kaukasis” (2017), and “Summer Kitchens” (2020), she writes, “I felt as though it was my mission to record recipes from the little-known and underrated food culture of Ukraine. I loved the anthropological and societal depth of the research and felt it was important to record recipes that may very soon become obsolete.”
This book compiles the dishes that comfort her, some she had during summers as a girl at her grandmother’s table under a walnut tree, later at her parents’ table spread under the shelter of a wild grape vine.
For now, she’ll return home through her cooking, her writing, her kitchen, and her memories.