10 May 2009

Not only for chickens

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, one of the reputable sources of linguistic reference, defines buckwheat as ‘a type of small grain used as food for chickens, and for making flour’. This makes me slightly confused and disoriented, because I, being NOT a chicken, eat buckwheat too. What’s more, I love buckwheat!

In fact, I come from a country where cult and tradition of buckwheat is insuppressible, unlike that of personality, for instance. Monstrous rulers get deposed, but buckwheat is irreplaceable. I like to think of it as a part of Russian cultural, as well as culinary, heritage, beside Chekhov, Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and, well, blini. Turns out, I was wrong, but hopefully only about the buckwheat thing. As I am writing this, I feel genuinely perplexed, for I cannot for the life of me start to understand why the compilers of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English think so lowly of buckwheat (please note that against chickens I have nothing -- everybody should eat well!).

While I get accused, more often than I wish, of not drinking vodka (C’mon, every Russian drinks vodka!), my Russian reputation is spotless when buckwheat, or rather eating buckwheat products, is at stakes! Blinis - check! Buckwheat porridge- check! Buckwheat honey - check! I even left my Russian buckwheat-comfort zone and landed in the soba-noodles territory!

In other words, I nurse a veritable affection and devotion to buckwheat. And particularly so, to buckwheat kasha (Russian for porridge). It would not be an exaggeration to say that in my family, buckwheat kasha is an alternative to bread, somewhat. I mean, so important it is. Depending on time of the day, there are various ways to enjoy the treat. In the morning, cooked and served with milk and honey, it passes muster as a nourishing breakfast; for later meals, it is ideal as a garnish to different kinds of roasted meat; ‘enriched’ with sautéed wild mushrooms and caramelized onions, it becomes the Tsarina of the table. Plenty versatile and adjustable, this buckwheat kasha! (But, Dear Reader, please don’t be misled into thinking that I was always so savvy as to eat buckwheat porridge the ways I’ve just described. Back in time, I was known as a girl who ate her buckwheat, cooked dead plain, or even undercooked, with a few pickled cucumbers on the side.)

Anyhow, to cook buckwheat I learnt from my father, who, normally, does not cook much. But he, being a lawyer, is on the more diligent side in our family of three when it comes to a task of producing edible kasha. And as the experience showed, one cannot be simpleminded about the ritual of buckwheat cooking. This requires almost scientific precision and angelic patience. My mother lacks both; she profanes buckwheat. So it was my father the lawyer who, through not a few trials and efforts, cracked the buckwheat code. The trick, as I was couched, is to heat the buckwheat grains before adding water. When poured onto the heated grains, water will immediately reach a boiling point, and this will prevent the grains from falling apart and being mushy, or watery, when cooked.

But as is with other traditions, what’s common in one country is totally unknown in another. In the case that’s being discussed, it means that there is no buckwheat on the supermarket shelves in Holland. No demand, no supply. Not fair, said I. And soon found buckwheat sold in bulk in ‘exotic food' stores, and also at the farmer’s market in Amsterdam. Thank you, Dutch Providence!
Now, having gotten my grabby hands on buckwheat abroad, I feel obliged to experimentally pair it with things I would not normally find in Russian markets.

Things like fresh, creamy, tangy goat cheese, for starters (in Russia, local goat cheese produce is yet uncharted territory), sold by a young-ish, blue-eyed Dutch farmer. I don't know if he eats buckwheat, but as long as he greets me in Russian – and he does! -- every time I appear at the customer's side of the counter, I think I shall be fine.

And finally...

Buckwheat kasha (porridge) with caramelized onions and goat cheese

(yields massive 4-6 servings, or maybe even 8)

2 cups buckwheat grains, picked over
2 large yellow onions, finely chopped
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
¼ cup olive oil

1. Caramelize the onions. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Once the oil is hot, add the onions. To check the oil for ‘hotness’ put one onion sliver in the oil, if it sizzles, proceed with the rest of the onions. Stir to coat the onions in the oil. Bring heat to low or medium-low and stirring regularly, cook the onions till amber in colour, about 40-50 mins or even longer. (It’s ok if the onions get slightly charred as they are cooking; just don’t let them burn.) Set aside.

2. In a large cast-iron saucepan, heat the buckwheat grains. As they start to brown, releasing their ‘pop-corn-y’ (my flat mate’s words) flavor, fold in the onions. Stir well.

3. Add 3 cups or more water to cover the buckwheat by an inch. Add 1 tsp, or to taste, salt. In goes the garlic powder too.

4. Cook over low heat, partially covered, until the buckwheat is tender and the liquid is completely absorbed. Depending on the saucepan size, it may take from 20 up to 40 mins (the larger and wider the sauce pan, the less time the process takes).

5. Serve with crumbled fresh goat cheese on top. I learnt that any good-quality goat cheese will marry nicely with buckwheat, from mild and young to aged and pungent.

It’s absolutely wonderful as a main course as well as a side dish to meat or poultry, in which case, though, you may want to skip the goat cheese, but honestly, I don’t see why you should.


Anna said...

mmm, i love buckwheat, too! i've had it cooked like oatmeal, but my favorite is to use it like risotto. it is almost pasta like! as a side note: in the states buckwheat is labeled like this 'buxkwheat (aka Kasha)' i guess we americans think kasha means buckwheat. i bet it's funny to find something that is a staple for you to be in the 'exotic foods' section!

anya said...

Anna -- what a great idea to use buckwheat like risotto. Wow, I am definitely trying it!

Anonymous said...

I was diagnosis with Celiac disease two years ago. Thanks for sharing. Buckwheat is one of the few grains I can still eat. This sounds like a good breakfast recipe. Thanks!

chris said...

Ilya brought buckwheat to work today. he did it with onions and mushrooms. i had never had it before but i loved it.. yumm...

anya said...

Hi Chris!

The love for buckwheat is ingrained in every Russian, including those drifted away from the motherland. It's eaten as a porridge, a stuffing, a side. Glad you loved the stuff which gives me an excuse to cook it for you and Paola some day soon, hopefully.