Polina Chesnakova is a Seattle-based food writer, cooking class instructor, and author of Hot Cheese: Over 50 Gooey, Oozy, Melty Recipes and the upcoming book Piece of Cake (Sasquatch, Spring 2022). Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, Seattle Magazine, Saveur, Culture, and The Kitchn, among others. Polina currently bakes the delicious breakfast cakes, available in the Kinfood Brunch Bag and in the Bread Share!
What brought you into the world of food?
My parents and I—including my four aunts and their families— immigrated to Rhode Island from the Republic of Georgia in the early 90s after the Soviet Union collapsed. The women in my family are phenomenal cooks and bakers and for as long as I remember, our family gatherings and special occasions have always played out at the table. While I was a pretty apathetic eater for most of my childhood, as I grew older, I found myself being drawn to the kitchen and spending more time alongside my mom and my aunts.
Their influence paired with a growing passion for baking that started in high school, led me to hone my culinary skills in professional kitchens, beginning in and following college in Virginia. Along the way, I started a blog called Chesnok that focused on my family’s Russian and Georgian food traditions and provided the building blocks for what I do today. While I no longer cook or bake in professional kitchens, I keep very busy working from home as a freelance recipe developer, food writer and cookbook author, and cooking class instructor. You might’ve also seen me at Book Larder, where I help folks buy cookbooks, host various events, and do most of my teaching.
What does kinship in the context of food mean to you? How has food served as a connector for you?
Watching my mother and aunts feed their families over the years, I’ve learned how a simple meal made from scratch not only fills our needs on an elemental level, but also comforts and more importantly unites us. They turn to the dishes of their home country as a way to keep their food heritage alive, and by teaching me how to roll khachapuri or pleat khinkali, we began to pave the way for new traditions together. Food is magical in this way—building and fortifying community across lands and generations—and that’s what kinship for me is all about.
What is your favorite fruit or vegetable? And ideal meal?
Sweet potatoes! At the cafe I worked at after college, we once ran a salad special. It was a kale salad with roasted sweet potatoes tossed in a garlicky-berbere spice mix, crunchy fried chickpeas, feta, pepitas, and cilantro - all tied together with a preserved lemon tahini dressing. I never really ate sweet potatoes before then, but that salad single-handedly kicked off a sweet potato craving that has lasted till this day - five years later. I eat them at least once or twice a week, usually cut into wedges, roasted, and thrown into whatever salad or in a soup, stew, or curry.
A recipe from Polina
Ruth Reichl says comfort me with apples, and I say comfort me with borscht 🍵 It’s an Eastern European beet soup, and my family’s version is chock-full of the rooty veg, along with cabbage, carrots, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, and onions. We also stir in spicy pepper flakes and heaps of cilantro and dill (a nod to our Georgian roots) for flair, in color and flavor. It’s earthy, tangy, vegetal and sweet, and carries a heat that builds and works its way down and through your system. Talk about a warm hug from within... And of course, a steeping bowl should never be consumed without a hefty dollop of cooling, rich smetana (sour cream) and another healthy smear onto a torn chunk of hearty bread. Crunch of the toast, a satisfying shower of crumbs, and then spoonful after spoonful of hot, crimson, and, if you did it right, creamy broth.
4 medium potatoes, such as Russet, peeled
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
Olive or sunflower oil
2 large carrots, peeled and grated
1 Anaheim (also called Italian) pepper, cut in half, seeded, and thinly sliced horizontally
3 medium beets, peeled and grated
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 large ripe tomato, chopped
½ small cabbage head, or 4-5 cups, thinly sliced
1 bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped
1 bunch dill, coarsely chopped
Kosher salt and pepper
Place potatoes in a large pot and add enough water to fill it ¾ the way. Season with a tablespoon of salt. Bring water to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat olive or sunflower oil over medium heat and add onions. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes then stir in carrots, pepper, and a pinch of salt. Allow the mixture to cook, frequently stirring, until the whole mixture is meltingly soft and is about to start caramelizing, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Add the tomato paste and chopped tomato. Allow to cook for a few minutes on low heat, then stir in the beets and allow to cook on low heat stirring occasionally. Add more water as needed to keep it moist.
Remove the potatoes from the pot once they are fork-tender and break them into pieces with a small fork or spoon. Set aside. Add the thinly sliced cabbage to the water and bring to a simmer and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the beet mixture, spoonful at a time. Bring to a simmer and add the potatoes and allow to come to a simmer again. Season soup with salt and red pepper to taste. If the soup is too thick, add more water.
Add herbs and cook on low heat for 2 to 3 minutes then remove from heat. To serve, add a dollop of sour cream to the soup itself and eat with good hearty bread smeared also with some sour cream.