Whenever I go to a party at the home of my Ukrainian neighbor, Valya Ulezko, her menu includes several fish dishes. When Valya was sauteing fish one day for dinner, I asked her what fish she likes to cook. She replied, “I just purchase whatever looks good at the market.”

Fish plays an important part in Valya’s culinary heritage. In The New Ukrainian Cookbook, Annette Ogrodnik Corona explains why: “Fabulously rich in natural reservoirs, Ukraine’s rivers and lakes teem with dozens of varieties of fish.”

Religion is another factor. The many kinds of fish, “along with many months of Lenten days, combine to make Ukrainian fish cuisine one of the most interesting.”

Ukrainian gefilte fish, writes Corona, has finely chopped carrots and parsnips added to the ground fish mixture. Unlike some cooks, Corona makes her gefilte fish without sugar.

Her recipe reminds me of my mother’s.

The similarity is not surprising, since my mother was born in Warsaw, and Poland shares a border with Ukraine.

A festive Ukrainian fish specialty that is fairly easy to prepare is pike fillets baked in sour cream, which, comments Corona, can be made with other kinds of fish as well. The fish is baked in a creamy sauce flavored with carrot, celery and butter-sauteed onion. (See recipe below.) Valya cooked a light salmon dish that was also flavored with sauteed vegetables.

First she sauteed salmon fillets in grape seed oil and, in a separate pan, cooked onions and grated carrots in a little butter. Next she added the vegetables to the salmon, along with a bay leaf and a little water, and simmered the fish until it was just cooked through. It was delicious.

Fish are popular for zakusky, an array of appetizers served to begin dinner parties in Ukraine and in Russia. The fish sometimes appears in a salad featuring modest ingredients. As one of her zakusky items, Valya made a layered herring salad that was flavored with onion, enriched with mayonnaise and garnished with grated hard-boiled eggs and parsley. It included layers of vegetables – cooked potatoes and beets.

Corona’s layered salad is based on canned sardines, yet is an elaborate nine-layer concoction reserved for special occasions. The mashed sardines are layered with grated hard-boiled egg whites, grated onion, grated cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, grated chilled butter and grated hard-boiled egg yolks; the dish is garnished with dill or parsley.

“Ukrainians are not calorie-conscious when it comes to celebrations,” writes Corona, “and this is a favorite dish throughout the country.”

To make fish cakes, Corona combines sauteed fish fillets with sauteed green onions, eggs and sour cream. She serves her fish cakes with a Crimean yogurt and walnut sauce with Turkish roots; it’s made of thick strained yogurt, ground walnuts, garlic, olive oil and fresh coriander.

“During the course of Ukraine’s history and while fending off attacks by the Ottoman Empire,” explains Corona, “Ukrainians eagerly adopted” certain Turkish culinary techniques.

Corona feels that Turkish dolma, or stuffed vegetables, led to the development of Ukrainian stuffed cabbage, which has long been considered an essential element of Ukrainian cuisine.

In Ukraine, cabbage is stuffed with grains such as buckwheat and barley, meat and even fish.

Spices play a part in Ukrainian fish cuisine. Corona’s traditional cod with tomato sauce is spicy as well as tangy.

To make it, she cooks the fish with allspice, cloves, black peppercorns, bay leaves and capers in tomato sauce flavored with butter-sauteed leeks, lemon juice and a little honey. She serves the fish cold as an appetizer or hot with fluffy buttered rice and a green vegetable.

For a heartier dish of cod and spiced tomato sauce, N.I. Georgievsky, author of Ukrainian Cuisine, simmers sauteed cod fillets with sauteed onion and cabbage in the sauce for one hour.

Occasionally, Ukrainians pair fish with fruit. Some serve cooked fish with boiled potatoes that are blended with grated tart apples and horseradish.

Georgievsky’s recipe for carp with honey calls for cooking the fish in a vegetable stock made from carrot, onion and parsley root and then boiling the stock, thickening it with gelatin and flavoring this sauce with honey and raisins. The fish is served cold with a garnish of lemon slices, minced hardboiled eggs and parsley. Dishes of this type are the inspiration for the sweetand- sour salmon appetizer below.

SWEET AND SOUR SALMON

This eastern European-style appetizer is delicately sweet and sour and is embellished with raisins, walnuts and parsley. The salmon cooks in white wine flavored with cloves, allspice, ginger and bay leaves, as well as onion and carrot, and the cooking liquid becomes a light sauce for the fish.

Makes 4 appetizer or 2 main-course servings

700 gr. (11⁄2 pounds) salmon steaks (2 steaks, about 2.5 cm or 1 inch thick)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 onion, sliced
2 carrots, sliced in rounds
2 bay leaves
2 slices fresh ginger (a 1-cm. or 1⁄2-inch cube) or 1⁄2 tsp. ground ginger
2 whole cloves
Pinch of allspice
2 cups water
1⁄2 cup dry white wine
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 tsp. vinegar, or to taste
1 tsp. honey or sugar, or to taste
2 or 3 Tbsp. raisins 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
1⁄4 cup walnut halves or pieces
Lemon wedges (for garnish)

Sprinkle salmon lightly with salt and pepper and set aside.

Combine onion, carrots, bay leaves, ginger, cloves, allspice, salt, pepper and water in a saute pan or deep skillet in which salmon can just fit. Bring to a boil.

Cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Add wine and oil and bring to a simmer. Add salmon, cover and cook over low heat 10 to 12 minutes or until fish is tender; check near bone – flesh should have turned a lighter shade of pink. Transfer fish carefully to a deep serving dish.

Boil cooking liquid for 5 minutes or until it is reduced to 2 cups. Strain liquid, reserving a few carrot slices for garnish, and return strained liquid to pan.

Add vinegar, sugar and raisins and simmer for 1 minute. Off heat, add parsley.

Taste and adjust seasoning. Add walnuts and pour mixture over fish.

Serve fish cold or at room temperature.

When serving, spoon a little of the cooking liquid over fish, with the raisins and walnuts. Garnish with a few carrot slices and lemon wedges.

FISH FILLETS BAKED IN SOUR CREAM

This recipe is from The New Ukrainian Cookbook. Author Annette Ogrodnik Corona writes that almost any kind of fish fillets or steaks can be used and notes that the sour cream helps to keep the fish moist. She recommends serving the fish with potatoes and a cooked green vegetable or salad and with plenty of crusty bread.

Makes 6 servings

1.4 kg. (3 pounds) fish fillets
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter or sunflower oil
1 onion, coarsely chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 rib celery, coarsely chopped
1⁄2 cup fish broth or vegetable broth
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 cup sour cream
Chopped parsley or dill to garnish

Preheat oven to 205ºC (400ºF). Sprinkle fish fillets with salt and pepper and place in a large, shallow baking dish in a single layer. Let stand while preparing the vegetables.

Melt butter in a medium skillet over medium heat and add onion. Saute for about 1 minute, and then add carrot, celery and fish broth. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and cook vegetables until tender, about 12 minutes. Remove pan from heat and let cool slightly.

Whisk flour into sour cream and spread over fish fillets. Spoon vegetables and their juices all around the fish. Cover with aluminum foil and bake 15 to 20 minutes.

To serve, spoon portions of fish and some of the vegetables onto warmed dinner plates, drizzle with some of the sauce, and garnish with a sprinkling of chopped fresh parsley or dill.

Faye Levy is the co-author (with Fernand Chambrette) of La Cuisine du Poisson, published in France by Flammarion.

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