The Dacha Diaries: At the Grill

Dacha season is upon us and the countryside beckons us with the enticing acrid smell of smoke from the wood burning open fire. Summers spent outside the city in a wooden dacha are an integral part of the rhythm of Russian life, a welcome respite from the urban hustle, necessitating a slower pace that entreats us to relax and savor the simple pleasures of long light evenings, fresh air, and al fresco dining around a communal table with friends and family.

The two great pillars of dacha cooking are an open fire and fresh, local ingredients. Dacha hosts worth their salt have long ago (ideally two or three generations ago) secured access to a reliable source of fresh dairy, meat and poultry for shashlyk — what other cultures calls shish kabob — from a neighboring farm. Salad makings such as cucumbers, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, new potatoes, runner beans, and herbs are hopefully growing in the kitchen garden or from that of an obliging neighbor across the fence.

The fulcrum of a dacha dinner is the shashlyk skewer. This age-old form of marinating then barbequing meat on a stick came to European Russia centuries ago from Central Asia and has become a fundamental part of Russian cuisine. Russian men revere the preparation and execution of shashlyk in the way Freemasons treat their secret lodge rituals, jealously guarded and seldom confided. “Shashlyk,” Russian men say, shooing us weaker vessels away with the hand that isn’t clutching vodka, “does not tolerate women’s touch.”

This, of course, makes cracking the shashlyk code an irresistible challenge.

And to be honest? It wasn’t that hard. After almost two decades of surreptitious sleuthing around the fire, I can reveal that the secret sauce contains vinegar, oil, salt, some fresh herbs, and chopped onion. So, occasionally, just to chip away at the patriarchy, I dabble in mixing up the shashlyk marinade myself.

What can and should tolerate a woman’s touch are dacha side dishes. Classic dacha cuisine tenants dictate fresh garden vegetables consumed in their purest form: whole cucumbers just off the vine, ripe tomatoes sliced in half, and stalks of fresh tarragon, mint, and green onions. To keep dinner at the dacha from getting monotonous, I’ve used basic shashlyk building blocks with sides that feature fresh garden produce with light, tangy dressings.