Buckwheat groats (Recipe: vegetarian kasha varnishkes)
Two things readers ask most often about The Perfect Pantry:
Is there a list of everything in your pantry? And, why haven't you written about... (black-eyed peas, fennel pollen, porcupine noses...)?
Yes, there is a list. I don't publish it, but I've written about each ingredient in my pantry, at least once.
To be included in The Perfect Pantry, an ingredient must be something I use to make other things, which rules out Fresca, which I always have in my refrigerator, and also porcupine noses, which I can't imagine anyone would like, as well as many more palatable things that simply don't appeal to me, like black-eyed peas and fennel pollen.
Also, the ingredient must be something I use in more than one way, or that I use in one way, but over and over again.
Buckwheat groats fall into that second category. My pantry, and my childhood, would be incomplete without it.
For families of eastern European and Russian heritage, buckwheat groats (pretty much synonymous with the word kasha, which really is a more global Slavic term for any type of porridge) are a staple.
Buckwheat groats are whole, raw, or white buckwheat kernels, stripped of the inedible outer coating. While many people think that buckwheat is a cereal grain, it's actually a fruit seed related to rhubarb and sorrel.
Unprocessed groats are bitter, and should be toasted in oil for a few minutes before cooking. Kasha is buckwheat groats that already have been crushed into smaller pieces and toasted to bring out the nutty flavor.
My grandmother made kasha as a side dish to heavier meat dishes in her repertoire, but for her grandchildren she tossed it with Goodman's egg bow-tie noodles to make kasha varnishkes. In my own research into the origins of the dish known as kasha varnishkes, I came across this from Soul and Gone:
In Yiddish, which adopted the word from the Slavic languages, and in English, which adopted the word from Yiddish, kasha refers pretty much exclusively to buckwheat groats. The etymology of varnishkes is murkier. It means 'bow-tie noodles,' but it appears (to my knowledge) only in the context of this dish. It’s a Yiddish word, at least in structure and phonology, but the Yiddish word for noodles is the unrelated lokshn.... The Italians, who probably invented bow-tie noodles, call them farfalle (butterflies).... I couldn’t even find a consensus on how to spell varnishkes in Yiddish. I was beginning to think... that like General Tso, tikka masala, and the global success of Domino’s, varnishkes would have to be consigned to the great realm of culinary mystery. But then I asked my mother, who knows everything. [More here.]
Wish I'd thought of that.
Stored in a jar with a tight-fitting lid and kept dry, kasha will keep in the pantry for up to two years. Try it in recipes that call for quinoa or couscous.
Without the varnishkes, kasha is gluten-free. Without the egg, kasha varnishkes is vegan.
Without both, it's just not the dish my grandma used to make.
Vegetarian kasha varnishkes (buckwheat with bow tie noodles)
One of my favorite dishes from childhood, as a side or vegetarian main dish. If you're not vegetarian, substitute chicken stock for the water for a slightly different flavor. Serves 6-8 as a side, or 4 as an entree.
1 box egg bow-tie noodles, or 1 lb farfalle, prepared according to package directions, drained and set aside
1 large onion, diced
1 Tbsp canola oil
1 cup kasha (medium granulation, or whichever you prefer)
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 cups water
2 Tbsp butter, optional
1/2 tsp salt, or more to taste
Black pepper to taste
In a small frying pan, sauté the onion in canola oil until the onion is quite soft and brown. Set aside.
In a bowl, mix the kasha and beaten egg with a fork until all of the kernels are coated with the egg. In a small pot or in the microwave, bring the water, butter, salt and pepper to a boil. Set aside.
In another small pot over medium heat, cook the kasha (do not add oil or butter), stirring constantly with a fork to heat and separate all the kernels, for 1-2 minutes until all the kernels separate (the cooked egg on the outside of the kernels helps keep them apart). Remove from heat, and pour in the liquid and onions. Stir, then cover immediately and cook over lowest heat for 10 minutes, or until all liquid is absorbed. Transfer to a large bowl and mix with the noodles. Serve hot.