Dips, kebabs and crisp spuds: Olia Hercules’ comfort food recipes

Home food is comfort food. There is no other place I would rather be, and no other place I would rather eat in. I didn’t cook as a child growing up in Ukraine, but I ate very well because my mother, Olga, my father, Petro, and my extended family were so excellent at it. It was only when I left my family and ended up a student in the UK that I was suddenly drawn to cooking. When phone conversations failed to satisfy my longing for comfort, home and love, making my mum’s food succeeded. Suddenly, whenever I cooked, those early-wired neurons in my brain fired up very specific feelings: feelings of wellbeing.

Koobideh kebab

I cannot emphasise enough that you need a lot of fat to make a super-juicy kebab, so use the fattiest minced lamb you can find.

Prep 10 min
Chill 30 min+
Cook 30 min
Serves 6

150g onions, peeled
500g lamb mince, the fattier, the better
2 tsp ground turmeric
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
Sea salt and black pepper

To serve
Ground sumac
, for sprinkling

Grate the onions into a large bowl on the coarse side of a grater, making sure to catch the juices. Add the mince, turmeric, bicarbonate of soda (it helps the meat to bind together), half a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of ground pepper, and mix. And I mean really mix it: get your hands in there and massage and work it. After four minutes of such manipulations, if you have time, cover and chill for 30 minutes (or overnight). This will help it hold together.

Get six long, metal skewers and have ready a bowl of warm water to wet your hands, so the meat doesn’t stick to them. Divide the meat mix into six equal pieces and, with wet hands, shape each into a sausage with a smooth surface (it’s important there are no cracks). Mash the meat around the top of one skewer and work it carefully down its length, so you have an even layer all along the skewer. Keep wetting your hands and rotate the skewer as you squash/distribute the meat around it. There should be no air pockets, and make sure both ends of the kebab are tightly attached to the skewer. Repeat with the remaining meat and skewers. If the meat fails to cooperate, dispose of the skewers and fry the mix as sausages.

Fire up a barbecue or oven grill (obviously, fire is where the magic is). If using a barbecue, wait until the embers have calmed down; they should be glowing red, but there shouldn’t be any flames. Lay the skewers about 20cm away from the heat, then cook, turning regularly, until lightly golden all over and cooked through and juicy inside. (You can always cut into one to check.)

Grab each skewer (with a heat-resistant glove), point its sharp end into a chopping board, then use a flatbread to slide off the kebab. Arrange the kebabs on a pile of flatbreads, so all the juices go into the bread, sprinkle liberally with sumac and serve with a salad or whole grilled tomatoes.

My brother’s salad

Recent events have rejigged so many family dynamics. My brother Sasha ended up moving to Kyiv from Lviv, and living in the same flat as his older son, Nikita, and his fiancee, Yana. Nikita is a very good meat cook, often roasting big slabs of this or that. My brother, however, who also loves cooking, really missed vegetables, so he started making this salad, which is hearty, because of the cooked aubergines and cheese, and fresh, because of the tomatoes. It’s the simplest thing with a short ingredients list, but it’s full of flavour and hits all your vegetable needs. Sasha calls it his Armenian salad but, to me, it is my brother’s.

Prep 10 min
Cook 15 min
Serves 6

2 large aubergines
5 tbsp olive oil
(or however many you like) medium garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
½ small red onion, peeled and finely sliced
Juice of 1 lemon
Sea salt
4 large, very ripe tomatoes
, such as bull’s heart
2 tbsp sesame oil
Soft herb leaves
– coriander, dill, basil, or a mixture of them
100g feta, crumbled

Peel and squash the garlic, then chop it roughly. Peel off strips of aubergine skin, if you like (Sasha does, because it helps it cook more quickly), then chop into rough 3-4cm cubes; there’s no need to be too precise, though. Put a large, nonstick frying pan on a high heat without adding any oil (I don’t have one at home, so use a cast-iron pan instead, and that works, too, though it is a little trickier), then dry-fry the aubergines, moving them around from time to time, for about five minutes, until cooked through and soft. Add two tablespoons of olive oil and the garlic, cook, stirring often, for about two minutes, to moisten and colour the aubergines, then turn off the heat.

Meanwhile, put the sliced onions in a medium bowl, spritz over the lemon juice and a pinch of salt, and leave to sit while you finish the salad.

Cut the tomatoes into chunks over a serving bowl, to catch the juices, then mix with the aubergines, remaining olive oil, the sesame oil, the onions and their juices, herbs and feta, and serve.

Potatoes of my childhood

Prep 10 min
Chill 30 min+
Cook 45 min
Serves 2-4that said, I can eat more than half of this in one go, but then, I am a total pig

Mum said, “Is this even a recipe?” Yes, it is – and what a recipe! In fact, it’s one of the most classic, probably most often cooked, quick family suppers and student staples there is in the whole of the former Soviet Union. The beauty of this dish is that the potatoes are cut a little higgledy-piggledy; you know, when you try to cut them really finely and end up with some really fine and some a bit thicker? Well, here, that’s exactly what you want, so don’t use a mandoline, not least because they are evil things in general (my poor knuckles). The imperfect cutting means some of the potatoes become brittle and crisp, and some meltingly soft, while the onion catches a little colour. With some kraut or a gherkin and maybe a chunk of cured sausage on the side, I can’t think of a more comforting thing to eat. To me, this dish is a main event in itself. Everything else, be it a token bit of meat or a very welcome pickle, plays a secondary role.

1kg potatoes, peeled
1 large onion, peeled
50g unsalted butter
50ml sunflower oil
Sea salt

Cut the potatoes in half so they are stable on their cut sides, then slice into fine half-moons. Cut the onion in half and then into very fine slices.

Put the butter and oil in the largest, deepest frying pan you have (mine’s a 26cm deep stainless-steel one) on a medium-high heat, until sizzling. Carefully drop in all the potatoes, add a generous pinch of salt and stir once to distribute it evenly. Leave the potatoes be for a few minutes, then stir in one big sweep and leave them alone again. Be patient: give the potatoes at the bottom time to catch and crisp up a bit. The whole process will take about 15 minutes, by which time the potatoes should be crisp and brown in parts.

Add the onion and another pinch of salt, stir it through, then repeat with the stirring and leaving-it-be for another five minutes, until the onion is translucent and soft – it doesn’t need to get caramelised, but if a few slices do get some colour, it’s all good. Reduce the heat to its lowest setting, cover the pan and cook for another five minutes, adding a splash of water and scraping the bottom of the pan if things get sticky, until all the potatoes are soft. Prick the fattest-looking one with the tip of a knife: if it gives, you are ready to rock’n’roll.

Butter bean dip with garlic and paprika oil

Prep 5 min
Cook 10 min
Serves 6-8

This is based on a Balkan dish called papula. In the original, the beans are pounded quite roughly, but I prefer a silky-smooth, hummus-like texture. Pick whichever paprika you like best; in this case, I prefer a sweet one, because the garlic provides all the piquant notes I need, but if you’re serving it with raw vegetables and enjoy spice, by all means go with hot. If you have fewer people to feed, it’s still worth making the whole amount, because it keeps well in the fridge and will provide a quick lunch for a couple of days.

500g cooked butter beans, ideally from a jar
3 tbsp olive oil
Juice of ½ lemon
Sea salt
1-2 tsp sweet or hot smoked paprika
2 tbsp sunflower oil
4-6 garlic cloves
, peeled and sliced

Drain the beans over a bowl, but not too thoroughly; it’s good to retain some of their liquid, because it helps make the dip silkier. Reserve some of bean water, too, in case you want to make it looser later. Blitz the beans in a food processor, then incorporate the olive oil in a steady stream. Add some of the lemon juice, then taste; beans in jars are usually well-seasoned, so I rarely add salt, but you may need to if you use canned beans. Add more lemon juice to taste, and check the texture: it should resemble a silky hummus, so if it feels too dry, add a bit of the bean water, or regular water if you’ve forgotten and chucked the bean water down the sink (I’ve done that before).

Put the paprika in a small bowl. Put the sunflower oil in a small frying pan, add the garlic, then heat over a low heat, swirling the pan gently. As soon as you see some of the garlic turning golden, reduce the heat or switch it off entirely, and keep swirling until most of the garlic has turned pale gold. Do not let it go too brown or it will taste acrid. As soon as the garlic colour is good, pour the oil and garlic over the paprika in the bowl.

Spread the bean paste over a large plate, pour over the red oil and fried garlic, and serve with good bread or raw vegetables – anything crunchy is great.

Pumpkin and orange kolach

Prep 10 min
Chill Overnight
Prove 3 hr+
Cook 1 hr 15 min
Serves 6-8

I adapted this from my Ukrainian friend and baker Katrya Kaluzhna’s recipe. Kolach is a very traditional festive bread, a bit like a circular challah. Pumpkin and orange are not traditional flavourings, but they are an amazing feature of this version. Katrya uses a sourdough starter, but this yeasted version is a bit less demanding (if you are an experienced sourdough baker, by all means use 100g revived starter instead). It’s nice to break up the various stages of this loaf: prep the poolish and pumpkin puree the evening before, then it’s a doddle to bake and eat it the next day. I very much doubt you’ll have leftovers, but, if you do, slice and toast the kolach on the second day and slather with butter and marmalade; it also makes a kick-ass bread-and-butter pudding.

For the poolish
7g fast-action dried yeast
100ml water
100g plain flour

For the bread
200g pumpkin flesh, cut into 5cm chunks
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
2 eggs
, lightly beaten
150g caster sugar
450g strong white bread flour
, plus extra to dust
60g unsalted butter, softened

For the glaze
1 egg beaten with 2 tbsp milk
3 tbsp mixed seeds

Whisk the yeast and water in a bowl. If you are unsure how fresh your yeast is (I always keep mine in the fridge), let it sit in the water somewhere warm for 10-15 minutes, until you see froth and bubbles. When you are positive the yeast is active, stir in the plain flour until you have a thick mixture. Smooth it out, cover tightly and chill overnight.

Steam the pumpkin chunks for about 20 minutes, until very soft (if you don’t have a steamer, pop the pumpkin in a metal or enamel colander, set it over a pot of boiling water, then cover with a lid that fits as tightly as possible), then blitz to a smooth puree. (If you’re doing this the night before, leave it to cool down and keep, covered, in the fridge.)

In the morning, take the poolish out of the fridge: it should look bubbly and slightly raised (if it doesn’t, I am sad to confirm that your yeast is dead). Whisk in the pumpkin puree, orange zest, eggs, one and a half teaspoons of salt and the sugar. Now add the flour: just dump it all in and stir with a fork or spoon. Knead the dough well, then leave somewhere warm for an hour or two, to rise.

Now, if you have one, fit a food mixer with a dough hook. If you don’t, knead by hand in a large bowl; it will be a slippery business, but embrace it, and remember you are also moisturising your hands. Add the butter bit by bit, and knead (if doing this by hand, wet your hands and use the stretch and fold technique), until fully incorporated. The dough should be shiny, soft and sticky. Cover and leave it somewhere warm for 30 minutes, then give it another knead on a well-floured surface; it might feel sticky at first, but that will soon go.

Divide the dough into four equal pieces and knead each one into a ball on a well-floured surface. Roll each ball into a long sausage, then put it on a barely floured surface and roll from the centre to the edges, stretching it out to 45cm or so. Put the dough sausages parallel to each other, perpendicular to you. Squish and stretch the top ends with your fingers, so they become a little thinner, then pinch together. Now, working from right to left, take the sausage on the right, feed it over its neighbour to the left, under the next sausage, and then over the final sausage. Again starting with the sausage on the right, feed it over, under and over again, and keep going until you have plaited the full lengths of the four dough sausages, then pinch together the bottom ends. The middle will look a bit bulkier, so stretch the whole thing delicately to even it up.

Gently transfer the plait to a tray lined with floured baking paper. Connect the two ends together, to make a plaited circle with an open centre, then cover and leave for an hour. Brush the egg and milk mix all over the kolach, then sprinkle over the seeds (if you’re using chunky ones, such as pumpkin, that have a tendency to fall off, dab a little extra egg wash on top to make sure they stick), then leave to prove again for 30-60 minutes.

Heat the oven to 220C (200C fan)/425F/gas 7. Bake the kolach for 30 minutes, until golden, then transfer to a rack to cool before slicing and serving.

Baked milk yoghurt jelly

Prep 5 min
Cook 20 min
Set 3 hr+
Makes 1 large or 6 smaller jellies

In Ukraine, we adore a baked milk yoghurt. The good news is that you can now buy ryazhanka commercially, but it is also easy to make, especially if you have made regular yoghurt before. Bring milk to a near-boil in a heavy-based casserole, then cover and slow-cook overnight in a low, 170C (150C fan)/325F/gas 3 oven. The milk’s sugars will naturally caramelise, leaving a bronze-hued crust on top and dulce de leche-tasting milk underneath. Mix it with soured cream or yoghurt, and turn it into yoghurt using a regular yoghurt-making method. I made this pudding with Thom Eagle for a dinner we held at Little Duck The Picklery in east London. It is delicate and pairs so well with macerated strawberries in June, or ripe peaches in high summer, or some blackcurrant compote. Add vanilla, if you like, but I think the flavour of the baked milk is so lovely as it is, I wouldn’t mess with it too much. It is worth using good-quality honey, but if you are using ryazhanka, pick one that isn’t overwhelmingly strong. You can also use kefir, but that’s more sour than ryazhanka, so you may need to up the honey ratio a little (and most certainly add vanilla). Sometimes, when I’m short of time, I make this is 200ml water glasses and serve them with some fruit spooned on top. But if you yearn for a pudding with panache, make it in a one-litre jelly mould. There is something so decadent and fun about a big jelly.

Prep 5 min
Cook 15 min
Set 3 hr+
Makes 1 large or 6 small jellies

3 gelatine leaves
100ml whole milk
100-120g runny, gently flavoured honey
400g ryazhanka
(baked milk kefir), or regular kefir
½ tsp vanilla extract (optional)
About 2 tbsp flavourless oil (optional)
Canned peaches, macerated strawberries, berry compote or fresh fruit, to serve

Soak the gelatine leaves in cold water in a small bowl: hold your nerve and soak them for as long as the packet implores you to, so they go very soft and pliable.

Heat the milk in a small pan until it begins to steam, then pour into a bowl. This should cool it enough safely to add the gelatine. Squeeze the water out of the gelatine, then whisk the leaves into the milk, so they dissolve. Next, whisk in the honey until it, too, dissolves. When the milk has cooled down to just warm (so the kefir won’t split and make your jelly grainy), stir in the ryazhanka or kefir and add the vanilla, if using (taste the mixture first before you decide; I prefer mine without).

If you are using six 200ml glasses, fill them each halfway up; if you are using a one-litre jelly mould, oil it lightly with a brush, especially in all the grooves, but not so much that it pools in the bottom. Put in the fridge to set: for the glasses, it shouldn’t take longer than three hours; for a big mould, give it four or five hours, or cover and chill overnight and eat within two days.

If you are serving the jellies in glasses, spoon a little fruit on top and serve. If you are using a big mould, take it out of the fridge, fill a big bowl with hot water and put the jelly mould in the water, making sure none of the water trickles inside, and leave for 30 seconds or so; the heat will help the jelly separate from the mould. Run the tip of a butter knife around the very edge of the jelly, to break the vacuum, then lightly wet a serving plate (this allows for the jelly to be moved if it turns out not bang in the centre). Put the plate over the mould, then invert very gently, agitating the mould a bit. At first, it might seem as if the jelly won’t separate, but hold your nerve and wait five seconds or so. (If it’s being stubborn, put the mould back in the hot water for 10 seconds and try again.) When the jelly comes out, some of it may have melted and pool around on the plate. Grab some kitchen paper and neatly dab this off, then pile lots of fruit around it to conceal any mess. In the very unfortunate event that the jelly breaks when it comes out (this has happened to me), use a dessertspoon to plop chunks of it on to plates, call it “deconstructed jelly” and (again) surround it with lots of attractive fruit.

When I serve the big jelly for a bunch of close friends or family, I normally give everyone a small plate and a spoon, then we all just, well, jiggle the jelly for fun before diving into it tipsily.

  • Recipes edited and extracted from Home Food: Recipes to Comfort and Connect, by Olia Hercules, published on 7 July by Bloomsbury at £26. To order a copy for £22.62, go to guardianbookshop.com