Foodfort: Chef Bonnie Morales Dishes Up a Taste of the Former Soviet Union 

click to enlarge Morales will bring the spirit of zakuski to Foodfort.

Carly Diaz

Morales will bring the spirit of zakuski to Foodfort.

Portland, Oregon-based Chef Bonnie Morales doesn't believe in culinary training wheels, particularly when it comes to the upscale Russian-style cuisine she'll bring to Foodfort, the tastiest branch of Treefort Music Festival, this year. To explain her philosophy, she told the story of a dish called "Herring 'Under a Fur Coat'" that she serves at her award-laden Portland restaurant, Kachka.

"The reason I never wanted to put that on the menu, at least not to start, is that I thought it would be too ostracizing. It's a layered salad with herring, and herring isn't the easiest thing for people who are uninitiated to get into, and so I just thought it would scare people off," Morales explained.

click to enlarge CARLY DIAZ
  • Carly Diaz

When the dish ended up on the menu, it quickly proved her wrong, racking up rave reviews and landing on lists like Willamette Week's "12 Wonder of Portland Food" and Eater's "Portland's 17 Most Iconic Dishes."

"That to me was sort of a lesson for how I shouldn't take what people are going to like or not like for granted, or make judgements for other people," Morales said. "I think the lesson there is to just put it out there and see and let people make that decision for themselves, and don't dumb it down."

That strategy has served her well. Since opening Kachka in 2014, Morales, a first-generation American whose parents hailed from Belarus (her maiden name was Frumkin), has garnered James Beard nominations for both herself and her restaurant, among other accolades. Despite her reputation as one of the Northwest's culinary giants, she's still happy to load up her car with pre-prepped dumplings, rabbit and pumpernickel for the 6-and-a-half-hour slog to Boise, where she'll present a four-course dinner at the Basque Center at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, March 20, to kick off Foodfort 2019.

The dinner is called "A Night at Kachka," so it's only fitting that Morales will pull dishes from the Kachka menu. They'll be served more formally than they would be at the restaurant, but the spirit of zakuski, a Russian term for a family-style table covered with hors d'oeuvres and vodka, will remain.

"These dishes are all from different parts of the former Soviet Union," Morales said of the Foodfort menu. "...That wasn't intentional, but it just kind of happened naturally. And that's kind of how I grew up eating, just this very varied, sort of multicultural experience."

The night will start off with khe, a far-east Russian salad of squid, mussels and rainbow carrots topped with coriander-paprika dressing, cilantro and dill. Next, a plate of Ukrainian potato vareniki dumplings will hit the table.

click to enlarge Dumplings are a Kachka specialty. - CARLY DIAZ
  • Carly Diaz
  • Dumplings are a Kachka specialty.

"These are filled with a really, really decadent potato mousse, and then we sauced a caviar beurre blanc on top, and I specifically wanted to do that because the farmed sturgeon caviar in Idaho is so fantastic I thought it would be really nice to highlight that," Morales said.

The third course will be braised rabbit, a Belarusian dish traditionally prepared in a clay pot with sour cream. Morales said she loads her version with garlic, porcini mushrooms, dried cherries and potatoes for a "really lovely, rich dish." The night will finish with debesmanna, a Latvian breakfast confection that Morales will turn into a dessert parfait of blackcurrant mousse and rose whipped cream, garnished with candied pumpernickel croutons. The whole dinner is inspired by trips to the former Soviet Union, which Morales makes a point to take at least once every two years.

In addition to the Eastern European dishes, diners can expect plenty of Russia's signature booze: vodka. At Kachka, infused vodka distilled in-house by Morales' husband, Israel, is a mainstay on the menu—and horseradish is their signature flavor. The $100-per-plate Treefort dinner will be paired with cocktails mixed by Buffalo Trace Distillery.

Her upcoming trip to Boise will mark Morales' first time participating in Foodfort, as well as her inaugural visit to the City of Trees. She first heard about the festival from Foodfort and Alefort organizer David Roberts when they met at the Portland food festival Feast. Fast-forward a few years, and Morales said she's anticipating not just the food but the music.

"It happens to be spring break, and my brother and his family are going to come out as well, so we'll have a little family time and hang out and check out some of the shows," she said. "I haven't had a chance to look at the roster yet, but I'm really excited to do that."

Hopefully she has at least an hour or two to spend scrolling.

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