Now that the Northeastern US is blanketed by snow, there seems to be no better time to make comfort food, which Kasha Varnishkes certainly is. Kasha Varnishkes is one of the better-known dishes of Jewish cuisine that was brought over to the Western world by Jewish immigrants from Poland and Ukraine. In essence, it is a mixture of pasta and cooked toasted buckwheat groats with caramelized onions and mushrooms. The word “Kasha” is a Russian word meaning any kind of porridge; though in Jewish usage it came to refer specifically to roasted buckwheat groats. According to a Jewish food site, this dish came about as a Ukrainian “poor man’s food” and was adopted by the Jews of Eastern Europe. Apparently, at the time when this dish was invented, wheat flour and buckwheat were some of the cheapest and most widely available foods. We should consider this a very lucky circumstance because otherwise it may not have occurred to anyone to combine pasta and buckwheat. This would’ve been a great loss because the combination of smooth pasta with the strong nutty and earthy flavor of buckwheat can be truly addictive. The caramelized onions and mushrooms make it even more so.
At first glance, it may seem that all one needs to do to prepare this dish is to cook buckwheat, cook pasta, and then mix them. However, recipes for Kasha Varnishkes, such as the one here , usually call for additional steps of mixing the buckwheat with a beaten egg and then frying the buckwheat with the egg. The purpose of these steps is to improve the flavor of buckwheat and to improve the adhesion of buckwheat grains to pasta. I tried preparing this dish with and without the egg. The result showed that, while the egg does slightly improve the taste and it does slightly help the buckwheat grains to cover the pasta in a more uniform manner, the differences are very minor and are not worth the increase in the cooking time of buckwheat. Adding the egg increases the cooking time by about 15-20 minutes because the layer of fried egg makes it more difficult for the water to reach the buckwheat grains.
It is probably safe to assume that, in the days when the cheapness of Kasha Varnishkes was a prime consideration, this dish was eaten as a complete meal. Nutritionally, this made sense because buckwheat is a good source of complete protein. In our time, Kasha Varnishkes has been relegated to the status of a side dish. While buckwheat makes meat nutritionally unnecessary, some sort of a dead animal on our plate makes any meal much more satisfying. However, preparing a meat entrée to go with the Kasha is more time-consuming. The recipe shown here combines Kasha Varnishkes with ground meat, which makes a complete one-pot meal. The meat may be of any type.
A Note on Shopping for Buckwheat
In the United States, buckwheat is not nearly as common as, say, wheat flour and rice, but nevertheless it is often available is the ethnic sections of large supermarkets. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city with a large Russian or Ukrainian community, then the best place to buy it is in a Russian grocery. The buckwheat should be roasted prior to cooking. This is important because unroasted, or raw, buckwheat has a bitter and unpleasant flavor. (The toasted buckwheat has a dark brown color, while the untoasted kind is greenish-grey.) If you’re buying buckwheat in a Russian grocery, then the chances are that it’s imported from Russia or China, and those are already pre-roasted. If the buckwheat is made in USA, such as Bob’s Red Mill Organic Buckwheat, then it is usually raw. In this case, it is easy enough to roast buckwheat in a skillet, as shown here.
2/3 cup buckwheat groats
12/3 cup water or meat/vegetable stock
1 lb ground meat
½ lb bowtie pasta
1 onion, sliced into half-rings
5 tablespoons sour cream
½ lb mushrooms
- Cover the bottom of a thick-walled 3-4 quart sauce pan with a thin coating of vegetable oil and heat the oil for 2-3 minutes.
- Place the onion and mushroom slices in the sauce pan and sauté until the onion is mostly brown, 15-20 minutes.
- While the onion and mushroom are cooking, cover the bottom of a large frying pan with a thin coating of vegetable oil. Heat the oil for 2-3 minutes and place the ground meat into the frying pan.
- Season the meat with ¼ teaspoon (each) of salt and pepper.
- Sauté the meat until the pink color is no longer visible, about 10-15 minutes. As the meat cooks, stir it frequently and break up large chunks into smaller pieces.
- When the meat is cooked through, add the sour cream to the frying pan and mix well with the meat. Cook 5 more minutes to allow the sour cream to absorb into the meat.
- By this time, the onion and mushroom slices in the sauce pan should be well browned. Add the buckwheat and water or stock to the onions and mushrooms in the sauce pan. Add ¼ teaspoon of salt and mix well.
- Let the liquid in the sauce pan boil for about 10 minutes. Shut off the heat, cover the sauce pan, and let it stand for 15-20 minutes, or until the water is absorbed by the buckwheat.
- While the buckwheat is cooking, prepare the pasta according to the directions on the package.
- When buckwheat has absorbed all the water, add the meat and pasta to the sauce pan with the buckwheat. Mix well.
- Add more salt and pepper if needed.
This recipe makes about 3 quarts of Kasha Varnishkes. It may seem a little intimidating because you’ll need to use two sauce pans and a frying pan at the same time. In an attempt to show a clearer picture of what’s happening here, I’ve put together a table with an approximate timeline of steps, as shown below.