Great Grains: Turning Buckwheat Groats into Kasha Varnishkes (a Warming Dish for Cold Winter Days)

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Making Kasha Varnishkes from buckwheat groats is as easy as 1, 2, 3. (Toasted buckwheat groats are widely known as kasha in North America.)

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Maybe you need to have grown up in some wind-swept northern clime to fully appreciate the hearty, warming quality of buckwheat (if it isn’t a necessity, I’m pretty sure it helps). You won’t be surprised to learn that Russia grows more buckwheat than anyone else, with China second, and Ukraine third. While in East Asia, buckwheat is most often consumed as a noodle (think Japanese soba noodles), in Western Europe and North America we know buckwheat best as an ingredient in pancakes and crepes. But it’s the whole grain buckwheat groats of Russia and Eastern Europe that I want to celebrate today. Buckwheat’s ability to thrive in poor soil and a short growing season endeared it to our Eastern European ancestors, many of whom likely would have starved without it. It’s peasant food, pure and simple, but nutritiously rich in iron and a balanced concentration of all essential amino acids.

Toasted whole grain buckwheat groats

Immigrants from Russia, Poland and other Slavic countries, many of them Jewish, brought buckwheat to the U.S. From the 1880’s to the 1920’s, tens of thousands of these folk settled in New York’s Lower East Side, where I lived in the late 60’s. It was in one of that neighborhood’s thriving Jewish dairy restaurants where I first encountered kasha varnishkes, the Yiddish name for a much-loved dish which consists of little more than buckwheat groats, bow tie noodles and onions. The dish’s simplicity invites variations–some versions calling for eggs or chicken stock, or a rich gravy on top. These days, kasha varnishkes is mostly served as a side dish, but doubtless during times of scarcity, it was the entire meal. My vegan version sticks close to the pared down original, with only the addition of mushrooms.  So, some chilly day, eat like our ancestors ate, bring the past into the present and cook up a warming batch of kasha varnishkes (recipe after the jump).

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The other Buckwheat: child actor Billie Thomas played Buckwheat, a character in the "Our Gang" movie comedy series in the 30's and 40's.

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KASHA VARNISHKES

1 cup toasted buckwheat groats (buy them already toasted if you can)

1 1/2 cups bow tie (farfalle) pasta (about 2 ounces)

1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced

5-6 medium mushrooms, thinly sliced (optional)

1-2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)

2-3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley (optional)

seasoning: salt and pepper

seasoning: umeboshi vinegar, soy sauce (these two are optional)

canola and/or olive oil

1. Bring two quarts of water to a boil in a large pot.

2. Heat a small sauté pan, add a teaspoon of oil, sauté the buckwheat groats 3-4 minutes. Add 1 3/4 cups boiling water (from the pasta pot) and a tiny pinch of salt. Cover, turn down heat to a low simmer, and cook about 20 minutes.  Remove cover and fluff up the buckwheat.

3. Meanwhile, add the pasta and a pinch of salt to the boiling water in the large pot. Stir, then cook over high heat until pasta is al dente, 15-18 minutes. Drain and set aside.

4. Heat a large sauté pan or medium wok. Add a little oil and stir fry the onions, mushrooms and garlic for 6-7 minutes, then reduce heat, add a tiny pinch of salt, a sprinkle of umeboshi vinegar and a little black pepper and continue cooking until everything is nicely caramelized, 8-10 minutes more.

5. Add the cooked pasta and the buckwheat to the onion mixture, stir everything together. Check seasoning, adding a little salt, pepper, umeboshi vinegar or soy sauce to taste. Garnish with chopped parsley, if you like or serve with a rich sauce.

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Steam comes off the caramelizing onions and mushrooms (left front), while farfalle cooks in the back, and buckwheat simmers on the right front burner.

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