It was a dark and stormy night. In the city that never sleeps, a lone detective slowly climbed the stairs to the fourth floor and nudged open the office door. After quickly scanning the room, he took off his fedora and knelt beside the lifeless man. Everything in the room was in order and there was no sign of a struggle. Just like the others. The only clue was a tiny slip of paper, clutched in the dead man’s hand. The detective slowly pulled out the slip of paper and read the lone word . . . BUCKWHEAT.
What could this mean? A grain? A breakfast cereal? That little boy with the big hair from The Little Rascals?
Lest you wonder whether I’m writing for the wrong blog, rest assured. My point is that buckwheat is a mysterious food and there are lots of questions about it. Is it a grain or is it a seed? Is it an ingredient or a dish? Is it kasha or not? And what is that kasha doing on the ceiling? Those are a few of the questions.
While buckwheat looks like a grain and is often used like a grain, it is technically classified as a seed. If you want to know the difference, see the following website:
So technically buckwheat is a seed that is used for food. It comes from a plant that is similar to rhubarb. In the United States, buckwheat is often grown as a cover crop. According to Cornell University, “it is a scavenger of phosphorus and calcium and mineralizes rock phosphate, making these nutrients available for later crops. Residue from the succulent buckwheat plants decomposes quickly. Buckwheat uses the shortest window of opportunity of any cover crop”.
The seeds of the buckwheat can be soaked or cooked in liquids (such as water or milk) to form a soft food that is somewhat like cooked oatmeal in consistency (sometimes called “groats”). It can also be ground into a flour which is the basis for buckwheat pancakes and Japanese soba noodles. More typically, however, the seeds are roasted with dry heat and perhaps butter or another oil to form a firm, nutty ingredient.
To make things even more confusing, the roasted version of buckwheat is sometimes called kasha. However, the term “kasha” is sometimes used generically for other dishes made with dry roasted seeds and grains. So when you find a recipe for “kasha” it might be an ingredient or a dish.
Kasha is quite popular in Russia and eastern European countries. The plant grows in regions that are too cold for true wheat and other grains. A Russian saying is “you’ll never spoil kasha with a lot of butter”. In Ashkenazi-Jewish culture, kasha is often served with onions and brown gravy on top of bow tie pasta, known as kasha varnishkes. Kasha is also a popular filling for knishes and is sometimes included in matzah-ball soup.
Now, about that kasha on the ceiling, there is a tradition in some eastern European countries in which a porridge is made with Kasha. On Christmas Eve a family member, usually the oldest male, takes a spoonful and flicks it on the ceiling. If it sticks, it mean everyone is going to have a good year ahead.
Vegetarian Buckwheat Salad with Pesto
This was the first dish I tried. The buckwheat I had was already roasted. (As a caution, one cup of buckwheat groats really does make at least four cups of cooked groats). I only used one of the four cups for this dish and decreased the other ingredients proportionately.
- 2 ¼ cups water
- ¼ teaspoon sea salt ( I used regular salt)
- 1 cup buckwheat groats
- 1 tablespoon butter, softened.
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (I used unsalted cashews) (Pine nuts would be an alternative too)
- 4 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup finely chopped fresh parsley (I used cilantro)
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- ½ cup sliced black olives
- 2 teaspoons dried basil
- ½ cup soy bacon bits, optional (I left this out)
- In a large saucepan, bring water to boil and add salt. Add buckwheat and cover pot. Let simmer for 20 minutes. Remove pot from heat and leave pan covered for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork. Add butter if desired.
- In a small bowl, combine chopped nuts, garlic and olive oil.
- In a separate medium bowl, combine parsley, Parmesan, black olives and basil.
- Add the nut mixture to the cooked buckwheat and mix thoroughly.
- Add the cheese and herb mixture and mix thoroughly. Sprinkle with soy bacon, if desired.
I tasted this immediately and found it to be disappointing. Buckwheat has a taste that is often described as “earthy”. When you first put it in your mouth the predominant sensation is “tasteless and mushy” but when you open your mouth there is a very distinct and unique “after taste”.
It also looked very unappealing. Time to get creative here! I added one-fourth cup each of finely diced red pepper and orange pepper. That helped with the appearance but didn’t do much for the taste. So I looked at some other recipes and added two teaspoons of rice wine vinegar. That was better! Then I went to bed.
The next morning I tasted it and it was a bit better. It definitely needed a “rest” too.
The second recipe was for stir-fried buckwheat. Since I already had cooked buckwheat (lots and lots of buckwheat!), I skipped the first step.
- 1 cup buckwheat groats
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 2 cups reduced sodium vegetable broth
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce (regular or reduced-sodium)
- 2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon Asian chile paste or sambal (I did not have this)(maybe some red pepper flakes?)
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
- 6 scallions, thinly sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
- 2 large carrots, grated
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
- ½ pound green beans, cut into ½ inch pieces (I didn’t have these, but might have substituted Pea pods if I had them)
Step one: Cooking the groats.
Pour the groats into a large bowl and mix in the egg until well-coated, all the grains separated from one another. Heat a large, dry saucepan over medium heat. Pour in the coated groats and stir over the heat for two minutes to set the egg. The groats should still be separate from each other. Pour in the broth and increase the heat to high. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the liquid has been absorbed and the groats are tender, about 15 minutes. Spread the buckwheat on a large rimmed baking sheet and cool for 10 minutes to make sure the grains stay separate rather than clumping together.
Step two: Finishing the dish
Whisk the soy sauce, vinegar, chile paste and sugar in a small bowl. Heat a large wok over medium-high heat. Swirl in the oil, then add the scallions, garlic and ginger. Stir fry for 30 seconds. Add the carrots, bell pepper and green beans. Stir-fry until crisp-tender, about two minutes. Add the buckwheat. Continue stir-frying for one minute. Pour in the soy sauce mixture and bring to a simmer, tossing and stirring for one more minute.
This tasted fine but was better in the morning. I think I am detecting a pattern here.
Spring Soba Noodle Salad with Fava Beans
This recipe was originally for buckwheat Soba noodles, but I had been unable to find the noodles at my grocery store and I still had lots and lots of cooked buckwheat. Time to get creative again! I didn’t have any fava beans or asparagus so I substituted frozen pea and frozen corn for a bit more color.
- 1 cup fresh fava beans, shelled, blanched in boiling water, and waxy coating removed
- 11/2 cups asparagus, chopped into 11/2 inch pieces
- 11/2 cups chopped broccoli florets.
- 10 ounces buckwheat soba noodles (or one cup cooked buckwheat groats)
- 1 cup shredded carrot (I julienned them instead)
- 2 scallions, sliced
- 6 tablespoons rice vinegar (not seasoned)
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup or agave nectar (left out) (I used a pinch of sugar)
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons avocado or walnut oil or olive oil
- 1 clove finely minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
- 1/1/2 tablespoon tamari or soy sauce
- Juice of one small lime.
[Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cook soba noodles according to package instructions. When the noodles are ready, drain them and transfer them to a large bowl.]
Fit a pot of boiling water with a vegetable steamer. Steam vegetable until slightly tender and bright green (about two minutes). Quickly rinse under cool water to preserve color and crunch, and set aside.
Whisk the vinegar, sweetener, oil, garlic, ginger, tamari or soy sauce, and lime juice together to make the dressing. Set aside.
Mix the steamed vegetable and raw carrots and scallion into the buckwheat. Add the dressing. Combine all ingredients and allow them to sit for an hours or two before serving.
I’m all about the color, so garnished with some fresh corn kernels, diced orange peppers and a little bit of fresh dill from my daughter’s garden.
I choose to work with buckwheat because I didn’t know anything about it. I can’t say that this was a decision I would make again. When I first tasted the cooked buckwheat I thought, “If this were a house, its address would be on the corner of “Blah” and “Yuck”. Later I discovered that the secret for working with buckwheat is twofold.
- First, combine it with lots and lots of other ingredients that you really like and then add a strongly flavored sauce or dressing.
- Secondly, let the dish sit in the refrigerator for a couple of hours before eating to allow the flavors to blend. These are definitely “make ahead” dishes.
Let’s just say that buckwheat is an “acquired” taste. Oh, and by the way, as Garrison Keillor would say about powder milk biscuits, “Heavens, they’re expeditious.”