In the introduction to her new book’s vegetables chapter, Olia Hercules lays out a misconception that she has spent her career trying to correct. “When I was a teenager living in Cyprus, and later in the UK, I always felt really hurt and offended when people in my new home countries suggested that Ukrainian food must be all about potatoes and overcooked cabbage,” she writes.
Ukraine is bigger and just as regional as France, Hercules reminds us, and in the south there are “enormous flavor-bomb tomatoes, all kinds of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and a huge variety of herbs.” Her first book, Mamushka, showed off just how vibrant and colorful Ukrainian cooking can be. Her second book, Kaukasis, did the same for the Caucasus. But it’s her third book, Summer Kitchens, that clears up these misconceptions once and for all.
The book is an homage to the structures of its title: small, one-room buildings, separate from the main house, used to prepare and eat meals during the warm weather months (and, sometimes, when preparing a feast in the winter). In hot weather, summer kitchens were where all the “frying, cooking, and preserving could be done.” That means they hosted a kaleidoscopic variety of vegetables—including, according to an Ukrainian cookbook from 1929, eggplants that were often charred and turned into eggplant “butter.”
In the headnote to the recipe for Burnt Eggplant Butter on Tomato Toasts, Hercules explains that she found a “delightfully simple version of this recipe in Olga Franko’s brilliant 1929 book called Practical Cooking.” Hercules’s riff on the recipe is also delightfully simple. It starts with a large eggplant that’s roasted over hot coals—or, as is more likely in 2020, on a stovetop burner, the same way you’d roast a bell pepper. When the eggplant has collapsed into itself, the soft flesh is scraped into a bowl and mixed with salt, pepper, and—crucially—butter. This spread, which Hercules states “should taste of comfort, like baba ganoush’s Ukrainian third cousin,” is slathered on grilled bread that has, like pan con tomate, been rubbed with garlic and tomato. It’s finished with whatever herbs you have around the house.
It’s not particularly rich eating—the butter doesn’t make the eggplant decadent so much as it softens its edges, making it a mellow counterpoint to the hint of garlic. This is not hearty food, either—it’s a smoky, creamy, crunchy, and vibrant snack or lunch. In short, it’s fairly unlike the long-simmered cabbage that has become the stereotypical poster recipe of Ukrainian cooking. It is, in other words, a delicious way that Hercules makes her point.Olia Hercules
Originally Appeared on Epicurious