NEW YORK — It started with a simple salad. Natasha Kravchuk began building a cooking mini-empire by combining cucumber, tomato and avocado. When a TV anchor shared the recipe on Facebook in 2015, the dish went viral.
“I think that was the recipe that kind of gave us the first lift,” says Kravchuk, whose online hub Natasha’s Kitchen has grown to some 13 million followers across social media. “I think that’s trademark for what you can find on Natasha’s Kitchen.”
Kravchuk’s philosophy is indeed mixed into that salad — flavorful food that doesn’t take a long time, uses regular ingredients and doesn’t hurt the pocketbook.
“It’s turning humble and just simple ingredients into something really delicious,” she says. “That just has always carried through with me. I don’t think you need saffron to make something taste incredible, you know?”
This fall, Kravchuk has put her expertise into her debut cookbook, “Natasha’s Kitchen: 100+ Easy Family-Favorite Recipes You’ll Make Again and Again,” which includes dishes such as Salmon Piccata and Turkey Meatball Soup, and Crispy Bacon Jalapeno Poppers.
“It’s approachable. You can look at the list of ingredients and be like, ‘OK, I have most of those things already.’ The steps are simple and they are recipes that work,” she says.
The book is classic, chicken-soup cooking — and, indeed, there’s a recipe for that on page 115. There’s even a dish — Zuppa Toscana — inspired by an Olive Garden offering. “I make it better,” she says, laughing.
There are American classics like baked mac and cheese and blueberry muffins, and gentle nods to Mexico, Italy, France and Asia. There’s a heavy lean on traditional Ukrainian recipes passed down from Kravchuk’s mother, like classic borscht and pierogies.
“We cook a little bit of everything now, but I think people trust our taste in food and and they can relate to the values that we have,” she says.
Ukrainian-born Kravchuk and her family fled religious persecution in the 1980s and eventually found their way to Meridian, Idaho. At one point, they relied on food banks, a fact not lost on her these days. “I was telling my husband, ‘God has a sense of humor to give this refugee a cookbook,’” she says.
She didn’t start cooking until later in life and started blogging in 2009. “When I got married, I wanted to recreate the same foods we grew up loving and enjoy. So I started learning how to cook. I started going to the library, getting stacks of books, asking my mom, my mother-in-law for recipes and friends.”
Susan Roxborough, Kravchuk’s editor at Clarkson Potter, loved Kravchuk’s personal story and her book proposal — especially the teriyaki salmon, with brown sugar, hoisin, soy sauce, garlic and ginger. She found the author down-to-earth and relatable.
“It was easy to imagine her as your next-door neighbor or maybe a fellow parent at a bake sale at your kid’s school,” Roxborough says.
Roxborough and her daughter made Kravchuk’s pierogi together — a fun time bonding, as well as delicious — and says she’s become obsessed with the recipe for Tres Leches Cupcakes. “It’s dangerously good,” she says.
The cookbook, which last week debuted at No. 2 on The New York Times’ Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous list, contains a dozen or so reader favorites, but most of the recipes are new, split into breakfast, snacks, salads, soups, mains, sides and desserts. A battalion of over 300 testers have kicked the tires on each dish.
The book includes Kravchuk’s mother’s Ukrainian pancakes, which call for yeasted batter. She says they puff up like donuts when they hit the hot oil, and have a subtle sourdough-like flavor.
“They just need a little bit of time to pop up. But the beauty of those is you can make them and enjoy them for several days, whereas the typical pancakes with baking soda or baking powder, they’re really only good the first day,” she says.
Another favorite is a chicken pot pie, which Kravchuk says is a top 10 favorite on her site. “It’s such a comforting meal. There is just no comparison to store-bought,” she adds. “It really isn’t complicated. I think people realize that the first time they make it, that it’s just such a comforting thing to make. And it reheats well, too.”
Kravchuk spotted two items to put together during warm weather — bacon and corn — and came up with a dish that will cause every parent to slap their forehead because they didn’t already do it by now. One of her nieces named it “Ba-Corn” and that simply can’t be improved upon.
Kravchuk didn’t follow the food world’s traditional route for a rising chef.
“We’re still seeing books and publishing books and buying books from chefs or from people who have deep expertise around a certain kind of cuisine. But there is also room and a desire and an interest in people who are coming from a different perspective,” says Roxborough. “There’s room for them.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits