The joke goes like this: in Russia there are only two seasons, white winter and green winter.  And I’ve heard it said that there are only two seasonings, as well: salt and pepper. That’s not quite as fair.  What about the well-established loan flavors from the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Black Sea? There’s lobio spiked with cayenne, pomegranate molasses, and coriander; hot ajika paste; golden plov (Azeri pilaf). If we’re talking traditional Russian flavors, there’s garlic, of course–plenty of it–and sharp ferments, and the umame of wild mushrooms.  And then there’s dill, that elegant yet homey herb, ubiquitous in the summer, as fragrant and as fleeting as the bright warm days themselves.

In Russia, dill–like so many things basic and traditional, including apples and idioms–is the purview of old women.  In the countryside, villages, and cities, they tend it, harvest it, offer it for sale, and make sure it retains its revered place in the culture.  If you walk down the street in Moscow, mid-summer, the smell of dill wafts from old ladies’ string bags. Some sell bunches of dill on the corner, holding their wares aloft like wildflower bouquets.

Dill smells a little like anise, a little like its cousin the carrot.  But the aroma is a thing unto itself: the sharp whiff of summer, for Russians inextricably tinged with sunburned skin and smoked street food and lazy weekends at the dacha.  Color is important too, since the landscape is relentlessly grayscale for most of the year. So when summer comes along with its riot of color and aroma, something vital is awakened in the soul. Dill is the blue-green of luxurious meadow grass, afloat with lacy chartreuse flowers.  At its most picturesque, however, dill is bundled simply in a colorful cotton handkerchief.

Within hours of my arrival in Moscow shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, the first thing put in front of me by my landlady Alla was a simple tomato, cucumber, and herb salad, made with ingredients she grew herself at the dacha, and tanged up with a spoonful of sour cream.  The freshness and simplicity was both comforting and bold. I was not only being welcomed to this place but welcoming it, drawing in its nourishment. The tomatoes tasted Russian.  The dill had a bright grassiness that was a revelation to me.  I shared a kitchen with Alla, and for months I watched her cook.  Her approach was matter-of-fact. Her hands, scrubbed red by work, neither hesitated nor wasted any movement.  Hers was truly an economy of energy. No scrap was left unused, either. She would scrape the tiniest bits of chopped dill leaf from her fingers gently with the knife.  

Years later and settled in New England, my family started growing dill of our own.  I always sow lots of the little flat seed in early spring, so that by summer I have plenty of sturdy plants to snip from.  In addition, most years dill has self-seeded and crops up in unlikely places–tucked in with the blueberry bushes, or in the mulch between raised beds.  Sometimes I relocate these seedlings to the kitchen garden plot, or else let them grow like weeds and then pluck the entire plant for use in a recipe before it gets ungainly.  The ethereal flowers add a beautiful touch to bouquets. But one of the things I love most about growing dill and cooking with it is that it links us to our Russian years.

Flavor affinities

Vegetables–especially potato, tomato, cucumber, carrot, and mushroom; soups and stews–especially chicken, tomato, or mushroom soups, borscht, beef stew and stroganoff, seafood chowders; dairy–especially yogurt, sour cream, and feta; salads–especially pasta and couscous salads, tomato and cucumber salads, and slaws; sauces–especially mushroom gravy, white sauce, and tzatziki; all seafood.


Alla’s Dacha Salad

This refreshing salad is free-form or “to taste”–amounts and proportions are variable.  It can be made with all tomatoes or all cukes, equal proportions of both, or a preponderance of one. I like to use both vegetables in roughly equal amounts.  The one prescription is to be stingy with the sour cream, since the vegetables give off a lot of juice and one can quickly end up with soup instead of salad.  The aim is to just color and moisten the vegetables a bit while adding a hint of tang rather than full-on creaminess.

  • Any type of tomato, chopped into ½-1” chunks (halved or quartered if a smaller variety)
  • Cucumbers, peeled and similarly chopped
  • Minced fresh dill
  • Minced fresh parsley (optional)
  • Sour cream
  • Salt

Place the chopped vegetables in a mixing bowl.  Add the minced herb(s) generously to taste and fold in a small amount of sour cream–just enough to bind ingredients together.  Salt to taste and serve chilled.

Приятного аппетита! // Priyatnovo Appetita! // Bon Appétit!     dill1-71566_1280


One thought on “A Bouquet of Dill

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