When I was growing up in Ukraine, every time I stayed at my grandmother’s house, we would go into her root cellar to pick something delicious for our next meal. She would open the creaky door and hold my hand because the steps were so steep that the slightest stumble could result in a major accident. By the third step, I could reach out my right arm and find the switch to a dim bulb that would illuminate my happy place: a magical culinary kingdom filled with rows of fermented vegetables, preserved fruits, radiant bottles of golden sunflower oil, and jugs of grandma’s homemade wine that she, my babusia, is so proud of.

All that changed Feb. 24, when a chef in San Francisco, where I live now, texted me and asked if Russia was bombing Kyiv. I replied, “Of course not!” Then I opened my social media and saw a post from a fellow Ukrainian chef saying that Russian rockets were hitting major Ukrainian cities, including the capital. It was so surreal, I thought I was trapped in a bad dream. In reality, it was the start of the worst nightmare I could imagine.

Immediately, I called my mom in my beloved hometown of Snihurivka and woke her up. I said that she needed to pack her emergency bag and get to a safe place. She didn’t believe me at first, but after a few days, she and my grandma, plus seven more members of my family and one little dog, descended those same steep stairs to hide from Russian bombs in my grandmother’s root cellar. Nine people were trapped 12 feet below the ground in a room no larger than a typical walk-in refrigerator at a restaurant, surrounded by jars of pickles, vessels with sauerkraut, and sacks of potatoes and beets. My family stayed there for two weeks, wrapping themselves in blankets, shivering from cold and terror.

The author’s grandmother, Olia Radchenko, in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2011. Photo by Andriy Petrov

The last time I was in that root cellar was many years ago, but even now, I can remember every detail. I remember the old door with its heavy, rusty latch that was never locked and those steps into the darkness before I could turn on the light. A dozen more steps and we were there – in my grandmother’s food sanctuary, surrounded by unlabeled jars and bottles of all shapes and forms, sacks of aromatic apples and crops. I could almost feel the chaotic movement of the wild yeasts that crowded that place, making fermentation happen in every corner: in an enamel pot of sauerkraut slowly bubbling on a lower shelf; in a wooden barrel with fermented tomatoes hidden in the furthest, darkest spot; and in glass jugs of my grandmother’s rose wine, so strong it will knock your socks off with one tiny glass. The smell was cool, earthy, vegetal, with hints of damp forest floor and wild mushrooms, exactly like the nose of a good Bordeaux wine that I love.

Now, I can’t think of that place without tears in my eyes. The war transformed my happy place into a grim bomb shelter full of fear, sadness and misery. For the first time, my family has had to open those preserves not because they wanted a flavorful condiment to go with their meal, but because they had to rely on them to sustain them through war.

In a peaceful time, a typical Ukrainian root cellar is an underground structure that’s used as an alternative to a refrigerator for storing crops, preserves and ferments. No matter the weather above, that place always remains cool, about 65 degrees in summer and a little over 35 in winter, and relatively humid: the perfect conditions to store late-harvest apples, root vegetables, cured meats and pickles. Traditionally, these were meant to sustain the family during the barren winter months, and, to this day, the root cellar has wide use in small Ukrainian towns and villages, because preservation is still an integral part of our culinary culture. Every good hostess has her trusted recipes for fizzy fermented tomatoes, tangy sour cabbage and briny cucumbers. My family is no exception. Every June to late September, my mom and grandma embark on a meticulously planned quest of capturing the flavors of summer and conserving everything that grows under the sun. It usually starts with my mom’s delicate strawberry jam and ends with my grandma’s batch of homemade wine.


Somewhere in the middle comes my favorite part – the pickled tomatoes, my mom’s masterpiece. The secret is in her flavorful marinade: herbaceous, spicy and pleasantly vinegary with just enough salt to penetrate the tomato skins so that they are soft but still hold their shape until they burst in your mouth. Over the past few years, those tomatoes have been on the table for more family feasts than I can count and on the many pop-up dinners and cooking classes I have hosted in San Francisco and online. I feel it’s my duty to share this treasured family recipe with as many pickle lovers as I can.

My family escaped to Odessa, and nobody knows whether my grandma’s house is still standing, but I have a feeling that even if the house is ruined when my grandma goes back, the root cellar will be waiting for her. Possibly even with last year’s jugs of her rose wine and a few jars of my mom’s tomatoes, which were there when they fled. And those tomatoes will still taste good, without a hint of bitterness of war that slipped into those earthy root-cellar walls.

In our family, we share a dream that when the war is over, Ukraine will set one giant table across the entire country, from the most eastern part of Luhansk oblast to the farthest western point of Chop, and that the whole nation will rejoice in a feast of celebration for our victory. We will cover that humongous table with embroidered cloth and fill it with thousands of Ukrainian dishes. Everyone will add something special to the feast – red Ukrainian borshch, plump varenyky, garlicky pampushki and buttery crepes. I know what I will bring: my mom’s deliciously spicy-and-sour tomatoes.

Voloshyna is a food writer, photographer, cooking teacher and pop-up dinner host based in San Francisco.

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Sour and Spicy Tomatoes.  Scott Suchman For The Washington Post

Spicy and Sour Tomatoes


Active time: 25 minutes; Total time: 1 hour 5 minutes, plus at least 3 days’ pickling

16 servings; makes four 1-quart jars

This shelf-stable version of pickled tomatoes from food writer Anna Voloshyna’s mom relies on a herby, spicy, sweet-and-sour marinade that gives the tomatoes their vibrant flavor and appealing texture. Use a meaty, firm tomato, plum tomato, such as Roma or similar varieties. They will readily take on flavor and retain their texture. The tomatoes can be served as an accompaniment for hearty Ukrainian stews and roasts or as a zakuska – part of an appetizing spread – for an ice-cold shot of vodka.

You’ll need a canner or very large pot in which the jars can stand upright on a rack and still be submerged by about 2 1/2 inches, a canning rack, jar lifter, four 1-quart canning jars, and corresponding rings and lids.

Make Ahead: The canned tomatoes should sit at least 3 days before serving.

Storage Notes: The jars can be stored in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year.


Where to Buy: Canning supplies are available at hardware stores, supermarkets and online.


2 large green bell peppers (1 pound total), cored, seeded and roughly chopped

2 medium jalapeño peppers (4 ounces total), seeded and roughly chopped

8 cloves garlic

1 1/2 cups chopped mixed fresh herbs (about 2 ounces), such as cilantro, flat-leaf parsley and/or dill


4 cups water

6 tablespoons distilled white vinegar, plus more as needed

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 tablespoon fine salt

4 1/2 pounds ripe small plum tomatoes, such as Roma, thoroughly rinsed and halved from stem to bud



In a food processor, combine the bell peppers, jalapeños, garlic and herbs, and pulse until a chunky mixture forms, about 30 seconds. You should have about 3 cups. Evenly divide among four wide-mouth, 1-quart glass canning jars with tight-fitting lids.

In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the water, vinegar, sugar and salt and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and evenly divide the brine among the jars.

Tightly pack the tomato halves into the jars; be sure to leave about 1 inch of headspace between the tomatoes or liquid and the rim of the jar. Carefully clean the rims and threads of each jar with a damp towel dipped in vinegar. Tightly screw on the lids.

Line a baking sheet with a towel and place it near the stove.

Fill a large pot with enough water to cover the jars by 2 1/2 inches, set over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-high and set the canning rack into the pot. Carefully lower the jars into the pot. Adjust the heat to maintain a rolling boil and process for 45 minutes.

Let the jars rest in the canner for 10 more minutes to help prevent siphoning (when the boiling ingredients bubble up under the lid, breaking the seal). Using canning tongs (do not use regular tongs) or a jar lifter, carefully transfer the jars to the prepared baking sheet. Do not move them for at least 12 hours.

Remove the rings and test the seal by lifting each jar by the lid. The lid should hold fast.

Label and date the sealed jars, and store in a dark, cool place for at least 3 days, and up to 1 year.

Continue refrigerating for at least 2 more days before serving.

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