A San Francisco chef’s dumplings highlight Ukrainian roots

Inside an apartment in the Design District, an open kitchen awash in a flood of natural daylight smelled like Christmas — a Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas, specifically. 

Chef Anna Voloshyna (who also goes by Anya) was busy putting the finishing touches on a traditional Christmas soup, with delicate mushroom dumplings floating in a beet-red borscht, garnished with a heaping spoonful of sour cream and plenty of fresh dill. 

“Dumplings have a very deep, deep meaning to us,” Voloshyna said from her home kitchen. “It’s very special.” 

Chef and cookbook author Anna Voloshyna stands in her kitchen with a full spread of Ukrainian dishes.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

She added that the comforting dish she prepared symbolizes harvest, prosperity and nourishment. Many families in Ukraine also make dumplings together year-round and often highlight seasonal fillings. Expect sour cherries and strawberries in the summer, potatoes and sauerkraut in the winter. 

‘My food was good right away’ 

Voloshyna moved to San Francisco in 2011 from her small hometown of Snihurivka via Kyiv. She built her reputation as a chef and food influencer not by owning a restaurant but rather by hosting pop-up dinners in the city and teaching cooking classes, both online and in person.

Her cooking style adds her personal and local Californian twists to traditional Ukrainian food while delving into Ukraine’s past for reclamation and resistance. 

Her dumpling soup on a recent Wednesday afternoon, for example, embodied this ethos. It was like a culinary road map from the past, featuring ingredients from the present, and its complex tastes illustrated possibilities for the future.

View of chef Anna Voloshnya's refrigerator.

View of chef Anna Voloshnya’s refrigerator.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

Some of the many cookbooks inside chef Anna Voloshnya's apartment.

Some of the many cookbooks inside chef Anna Voloshnya’s apartment.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

Knives and cookbooks inside Anna Voloshyna’s apartment in San Francisco, on Dec. 7. (Charles Russo/SFGATE)

Voloshyna explained that when she grew up in Ukraine, it was a part of the Soviet Union, which formed in 1922, soon after the Russian Revolution. The government spent the next few decades forcing population transfers — or displacement — of several groups. For example, it took people from Uzbekistan by force and brought them to Ukraine. In turn, Ukrainians were moved to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to deter citizens from rioting against the government. 

“But when people traveled to distant countries, they brought their recipes,” Voloshyna said of this time period. “So we have manti [dumplings] from Armenia; we have khinkali from Georgia. We eat them, and we embrace the culture. It was a big culinary exchange — sometimes forceful. That’s why they have their dumplings and we have ours.”

During Voloshyna’s childhood in Ukraine, her mother, a talented home chef, didn’t allow her to cook, as a child might interfere with the process. 

“Ukrainian women are very bossy,” she said with a smile. “I was always watching her.” 

So when she began living on her own at the top-notch Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, Voloshyna started cooking immediately.  

“For some reason, my food was good right away,” she said. 

Anna Voloshyna's cookbook "Budmo!" features Ukrainian dumpling recipes.

Anna Voloshyna’s cookbook “Budmo!” features Ukrainian dumpling recipes.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

Voloshyna was still formally untrained when she signed her cookbook deal for “Budmo! Recipes from a Ukrainian Kitchen,” which was released in October, but later went to the now-shuttered San Francisco Cooking School to learn more techniques.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February, media attention on Voloshyna has increased. She’s openly talked about the war’s effects on her home country, family, friends and herself. It’s not easy to share trauma, but illuminating her experiences makes her an effective ambassador for the cause. 

At the start of the war, Voloshyna’s family in Ukraine was forced to take shelter in their root cellar for a week and live off whatever preserves they had left. Her mother managed to get out of Ukraine to stay with Voloshyna and her husband in San Francisco soon afterward but has since returned to be with Voloshyna’s sister, this time in the city of Odesa.

Her hometown of Snihurivka was recently liberated but is still unsafe — land mines planted by Russian forces still litter her hometown and green spaces of Ukraine, and it will take years to rebuild.

Voloshyna said she hasn’t been back to Ukraine since pre-pandemic days and longs to visit. She realized, however, that she can be more useful stateside, continuing to support Ukraine through cooking. 

She works with World Central Kitchen and United24 to raise funds for medical supplies, warm clothing and bulletproof vests, and her network helps by physically handing over these supplies to Ukrainian troops and civilians.

A pool of boldly magenta borscht 

As I sat at Voloshyna’s dinner table inside her apartment, she said it’s dishes like this dumpling borscht during the holidays that continue to keep Ukrainian culture alive and boost morale. Orthodox Christmas falls on Jan. 7 and features 12 vegetarian or vegan dishes eaten on the evening of Jan. 6. Foods range from a ceremonial porridge called kutia to another dumpling called varenyky, which are half-moon-shaped and usually stuffed with potatoes or sour cherries. 

And of course, there’s the borscht with mushroom dumplings. Voloshyna prepared a beautiful spread to complement the dumpling soup. A traditional dense loaf of dark rye bread, from the Eastern European Royal Market & Bakery on Geary Boulevard at 18th Avenue, was plated nearby with a few slices fanned out. 

Fresh bread and flowers in chef Anna Voloshnya's kitchen. 

Fresh bread and flowers in chef Anna Voloshnya’s kitchen. 

Charles Russo/SFGATE

One of Anna Voloshyna's many Ukrainian dishes, as photographed on Weds, Dec. 7, 2022. 

One of Anna Voloshyna’s many Ukrainian dishes, as photographed on Weds, Dec. 7, 2022. 

Charles Russo/SFGATE

One of Anna Voloshyna's many Ukrainian dishes, as photographed on Weds, Dec. 7, 2022. 

One of Anna Voloshyna’s many Ukrainian dishes, as photographed on Weds, Dec. 7, 2022. 

Charles Russo/SFGATE

Selections from Anna Voloshyna’s spread, including dark rye bread from Royal Market & Bakery, left, along with a semi-soft cheese spread and a pickle platter. (Charles Russo/SFGATE)

Other ornate plates featured during our lunch included more bread topped with thin pieces of a mild semisoft cheese, a verdant platter of pickles, huge dill bouquets and green onion bunches. Voloshyna also plated some of her mom’s famous pickled tomatoes in a California-inspired marinade of green peppers, chiles, garlic, vinegar, oil and a blend of fresh herbs.

The mushroom dumplings are called vushka, translated to “little ear,” due to their shape. Once a small circle of dough is filled, it’s sealed into a half-moon, then the ends are joined together to make an even smaller circle. These dumplings are small enough to fit on a soupspoon. 

Voloshyna’s spin on the filling used dried porcini and fresh cremini mushrooms, sauteed with minced onions and marjoram in the oil of Ukraine’s national flower — the sunflower — then blended with a bit of sour cream. 

To tie the dish’s elements together, Voloshyna saved the water used to reconstitute and boil the dried mushrooms and added it to the borscht, which she described as “an intense broth.” 

There are variations on borscht that include chunky vegetable pieces, but Voloshyna chose a simpler aesthetic with beet juice, mushroom water and chicken stock. She boiled the dumplings separately, then carefully scooped them into a bowl of borscht. Lastly, she garnished it with fresh dill (a must in Ukrainian cooking) and a dollop of sour cream. 

Anna Voloshyna's vushka, served in borscht, are small enough to fit on a soupspoon.

Anna Voloshyna’s vushka, served in borscht, are small enough to fit on a soupspoon.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

“If you want to keep this super traditional, very religious, you don’t have to add sour cream because you cannot use dairy products,” Voloshyna explained. “But in my family, we never did that.” 

I scooped up a spoon-sized dumpling in a pool of boldly magenta borscht and ate the whole thing at once. The vushka was a delicate umami bomb tempered by the sweetness of the caramelized onions. The minced filling was like a thick stew bound together by a silky, subtle touch of sour cream. Earthy beet broth was balanced by bits of dill providing a fresh grassiness. 

While dumplings normally have a heavy, filling reputation, this soup was meant to be light. You could eat a bowl of it and still have room for the other 11 Orthodox Christmas Eve dishes. So Voloshyna didn’t let me leave without eating more, namely those pickled tomatoes. The round red orbs burst with juice, revved up by Voloshyna’s signature pureed sauce, which reminded me of Argentinian chimichurri, with its multitude of fresh herbs and generous amount of spicy garlic.

Shaping Ukrainian cuisine for the future

Voloshyna describes Ukrainian cooking as informal — typically with no measurements for recipes — yet also resistant to change. She’s part of a growing movement of chefs who want to modernize Ukrainian food. 

Anna Voloshyna's borscht with mushroom dumplings is surrounded by accompanying dishes.

Anna Voloshyna’s borscht with mushroom dumplings is surrounded by accompanying dishes.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

Her cookbook, “Budmo!” titled after a Ukrainian toast meaning “let us be,” speaks to this nascent cooking style. Aside from the California spice added to her mom’s pickled tomatoes, Voloshyna also invented a twist on pelmeni dumplings — substituting a quarter cup of white flour with rye flour in the dough, which adds a slightly nutty flavor without reducing elasticity. The delicious recipes, combined with beautiful food photography Voloshyna shot herself in her apartment and deeply personal stories, prompted Smithsonian Magazine to name “Budmo!” one of the 10 best food books of 2022.

The other part of Voloshyna’s food mission is unearthing pre-Soviet Ukrainian recipes that were nearly wiped out, like fermented grains boiled with hemp milk and cooked with onions into a hearty savory porridge. She already wants to write a second cookbook with this theme of preservation, which includes fermenting, drying, curing, smoking — cultural preservation goes hand in hand with that. 

“I want to make borscht with fermented beets. It actually was traditional at some point, but not anymore,” Voloshyna said. “This year showed us very clearly the meaning of preservation. We had so little harvest this year, and people relied on last year’s preserves to survive.” 

Talking about her second cookbook concept aloud with me continued to shape her vision. “The next one I want to be the most Ukrainian book it can be,” she said with fierce pride.

I’ll be waiting for it with my soupspoon.

For more information on chef Anna Voloshyna’s upcoming cooking classes and Ukrainian relief fundraisers, visit her website. Follow her on Instagram to see cooking demos and more. 

Anna Voloshyna's cookbook "Budmo!" which features a wide range of Ukrainian recipes. 

Anna Voloshyna’s cookbook “Budmo!” which features a wide range of Ukrainian recipes. 

Charles Russo/SFGATE

Chef Anna Voloshnya's mushroom dumplings in borscht.

Chef Anna Voloshnya’s mushroom dumplings in borscht.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

Chef Anna Voloshnya's mushroom dumplings in borscht.

Chef Anna Voloshnya’s mushroom dumplings in borscht.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

Chef Anna Voloshyna’s cookbook “Budmo!” and the making of mushroom dumplings in borscht. (Charles Russo/SFGATE)

As a holiday gift, The Dumpling Report shares Anna Voloshyna’s new recipe for mushroom dumplings in borscht. Impress guests with this dish at a holiday gathering, or keep it all to yourself.

Borshch z Vushkamy

For vushka
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
3 tablespoons sunflower oil
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
6 ounces cremini mushrooms, chopped
1/2 teaspoon fresh marjoram, finely diced
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon sour cream, plus more for serving
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus some more for dusting 
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cups hot boiling water 

For the broth
4 cups vegetable broth
1 cup fresh beet juice
1 bay leaf
Salt, to taste

In a medium pot, combine the dried mushrooms and 3 cups of hot boiling water. Let the mushrooms soak for 30 minutes, then bring them to a boil and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until the mushrooms are plump and soft. Fish out the mushrooms and squeeze out the liquid. Leave the mushroom water in the pot. Finely dice and chop the mushrooms and set aside.

In a frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil and saute the onion for about 7 minutes until soft. Add the cremini mushrooms and chopped porcini mushrooms, and season to taste with salt, pepper and marjoram. Saute for 15 minutes. Place the mushroom mixture into a food processor and add 1 tablespoon of sour cream. Pulse the mixture a few times until finely chopped. Transfer into a bowl and let cool to room temperature.

To make the dough, mix the flour and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, add 1 tablespoon of oil and start slowly pouring the hot water. The mixture will be hot, so start mixing it with a spatula or a large wooden spoon. Transfer it to a lightly floured surface when the dough starts coming together and becomes warm enough to handle. Knead the dough for a few minutes until almost smooth. Wrap it in plastic and let it rest for 20 minutes. Make sure the dough is at room temperature before rolling it. 

Anna Voloshyna's borscht with mushroom dumplings.

Anna Voloshyna’s borscht with mushroom dumplings.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

Lightly flour the work surface. Divide the dough into two equal parts and roll into a large 1/8-inch-thick circle. Cut circles of dough using a 3-inch round cookie cutter, a glass or a cup. Repeat with the other half of the dough and scraps. To assemble the dumplings, place a teaspoon of the mushroom filling right in the center of your wrapper, fold the edges into a half-moon shape and press the edges to seal. Then pinch the two pointy corners together to make an ear-like shape.

Once you shape the dumplings, cook them in a pot of boiling salted water for about 5 minutes. 

Meanwhile, make the broth. Add the veggie broth, beet juice and bay leaf to a pot with the mushroom water. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Season with salt. To serve the dish, place the cooked dumplings into individual bowls, ladle the broth on top and finish with a dollop of sour cream.

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