Some families bicker about politics or someone's edgy boyfriend. For Bonnie Morales, the chef/owner of Kachka in Portland, Oregon, it's soup. Specifically, velvety, meaty, magenta-hued borscht (see the recipe).
"Sometimes, we'll literally have arguments at the table of whether we're eating schi or borscht," Morales explains. "In our family, if there is more cabbage, it's schi, but if there are more beets, then it's borscht."
However, inside the dimly lit, lounge-like Russian Samovar in New York City's Midtown, no such fight has broken out as Morales slurps down the storied beet soup with the restaurant's manager, Katya Seberson.
"It's so satisfying," Seberson says. "The combination of sweet and salty; you're getting so many flavors in your mouth. It's like an explosion, and it's warm in the wintertime when it's cold."
"There is a different borscht for every season," Morales adds. "It always makes sense."
There's a ritual to how Morales eats her borscht—always with pumpernickel-like black bread and a generous dollop of nose-clearing Russian mustard, which bears more resemblance to searing Chinese mustard than the sweet, pearled German kind.
"It's not borscht until you've mixed in spicy mustard," Morales says. "It's like a tiny bit of wasabi."
"Russian wasabi," Seberson chimes in.
At Morales's own restaurant, the menu whispers of her soup, fortified with the house "fancy broth" and studded with soft bits of short rib, "Psst . . . this is nothing like the stuff in the jar at the store," and Morales instructs diners how to eat like a Russian ("Step two: Fill everyone's glasses with their beverage of choice (like vodka, or maybe vodka."). It all translates into not just a really good time at Kachka but transcendent food, rooted in family history—the name, kachka, comes from the word that happens to mean "duck" in both Ukrainian and Belarussian, which helped her Jewish grandmother escape from Belarus to Russia during World War II—and reimagined into refreshing, exciting things to eat and a place that's on everyone's must-hit list when they land in Portland.
"We say Russian, but it's shorthand," Morales says of her cooking at our Test Kitchen, as she's throwing together her borscht (her second one of the day). "It's Soviet culture or the former Soviet Republics—not to get too political—but my family is Belarussian, and I always say Russian, because nobody knows what Belarus is."
Which is why you see the overlap of the Ukraine-originating soup in the heart of Mother Russia. "[A] borshch prepared with sugar beets, Ukrainian-style, you know the way, my friend, with ham and country sausages. It should be served with sour cream, of course, and a sprinkling of fresh parsley and dill," Anton Chekhov once said.
However, as much as Morales is an ambassador to the cuisine at her dacha-inspired, horseradish vodka-doling restaurant, she wasn't always one.
"[Russian food] was beyond not interesting. I found it gross—all the things that are assumptions about the cuisine that it's really limp, really overcooked, and there are aren't a lot of vegetables and a lot of weird fishy things," Morales says.
"I was in culinary school, and even then I remember I would try to tinker with things way too much," she remembers. "I was like, 'I can fix Russian food. I can Frenchify it.'"
Israel Morales, her husband and the restaurant's co-owner and general manager, changed her mind about it, and his second helpings and compliments to her mother's home-cooked meals made her re-examine the food she despised. After the two came from shifts at restaurants back in Chicago, where they met, they'd open their stash of frozen pelmeni, or dumplings (aka Russian bachelor food, according to Morales), and play around with sauces and garnishes for the most satisfying meals after a long day of work. That was the start of Kachka. Now she's gaining praise and press for her beautiful variations on zakuski (Russian drinking food) and, of course, pelmeni.
Morales is methodical as she gently stirs beets with seared short ribs in a big pot of beef stock. The first set of beets is swapped for bigger ones, then later shredded with gloved hands to prevent staining. The recipe comes from her mother, but here at our Test Kitchen and at Kachka, the meat is braised a tad bit more.
Her tinkering continues, but instead of trying to fix the cuisine, Morales is revitalizing it.