This one crept just a little too close to my fortress walls. Eating it, smelling it, preparing it felt like nostalgia had open wide its gullet and swallowed me whole. It was as if my grandma were there in the kitchen with me. It’s still there as the smells linger– a time warp so strong that I can almost hear her voice, feel the wind as she passes through the hallway saying, “I’m only staying until 4p” and I see myself as I was as a kid. Eating this satiated a hunger I didn’t know was there. I knew food had this power, but I didn’t realize it could be so intensely visceral. #totallyunpreparedforthis.
Kasha varnishkes is a dish of sautéed onions tossed with pasta and buckwheat groats (the hulled, roasted kernels of buckwheat). It’s mainly associated with Russian Jews and more specifically, Grandma Irene. I mention the dish in this tale and would have added them as one of the recipes there, except that these kasha varnishkes were purely my grandma’s. It may be the only thing she ever really made. It’s peasant food, pure and simple, but nutritiously rich in iron, protein from the egg and a heaping dose of indelible memories.
Kasha itself, let’s face it, tastes like nothing, or like nothing with a little dirt thrown in. But once it is cooked in chicken stock, lavished with caramelized onions that have been fried in chicken fat or butter, then folded in with bow-tie noodles, it becomes an ideal medium for sopping up flavors. Next time I’ll add porcini mushrooms, which I think would complete this dish. I added chestnuts here, which I think enhanced the flavor brilliantly with texture and sweetness and a whole extra layer of nostalgia.
I used to pick chestnuts with my family growing up. Our friend’s backyard had huge old trees that yielded more than they could ever eat. The harvest was always a cold affair and the spiny green chestnut cases were about as ready to part with their fruit as I was for eating this dish. Even thick leather workman’s gloves didn’t protect us from puncture wounds. At home, my dad broke into them with a butcher’s knife and then we got to the task of cutting, roasting and peeling. Now that chestnuts are in season, I just had to.
In shelling these chestnuts, my manicured office hands melt into kitchen hands that touch and taste. The rough shells of chestnuts, pried open for the meat. For every one one I toss into the bowl, I eat. The soft onion skins set aside from their inhabitants. My hands become my mom’s hands, my grandma’s hands then my hands again. Kasha varnishkes is simple kitchen work worth every ounce of chopping, peeling, sauteing and roasting. And maybe one day I’ll walk into a room carrying a huge steaming bowl of kasha varnishkes and announce that “I’m only staying ’till four,” knowing full well that the statement is for me alone, because if I don’t aspire to an arbitrary limit I will never leave. Not today, not ever. This dish proved she never has.
I hope you’re having a good holiday season so far and take some time out from running around and working to appreciate the moment. Do it with a steaming bowl of kasha varnishkes!
Kasha Varnishkes (Serves about 4)
- 2 large onions, sliced in rounds
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 2 tablespoons butter or chicken fat
- 1 large egg or egg white, slightly beaten
- 1 cup medium or coarse kasha (try to get the kind that have been “toasted” or “pre-roasted”
- 2 cups chicken stock
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1/2 lb roasted peeled and chopped chestnuts (about 10)(optional)
- 1/2 cup porcini mushrooms (optional)
- 1 cup large or small bow tie-shaped noodles
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
If using chestnuts, preheat oven to 350F. Using a sharp knife cut a large X across the flat part of the chestnut. Make sure you make it through the shells. After slitting the shells, transfer the chestnuts to a chestnut roasting pan or a rimmed baking pan, and roast them in a 350-degree oven for about 35 minutes. While the chestnuts are hot, remove and discard each shell and the papery skin. Chop coarsely.
Sauté the onions in 2 tablespoons of the butter or chicken fat in a heavy frying pan with a cover until golden. Add garlic and cook for 1-2 mins more. Remove to a plate.
Beat the egg in a small mixing bowl and stir in the kasha. Mix, making sure all the grains are coated. Put the kasha in the same frying pan, set over a high heat. Flatten, stir, and break up the egg-coated kasha with a fork or wooden spoon for 2 to 4 minutes or until the egg has dried on the kasha and the kernels brown and mostly separate.
Add the chicken stock, salt, and pepper to the frying pan and bring to a boil. Add the onions and garlic, chestnuts and mushrooms. Cover and cook over low heat, steaming the kasha for 10 minutes. Remove the cover, stir, and quickly check to see if the kernels are tender and the liquid has been absorbed. If not, cover and continue steaming for 3 to 5 minutes more.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook the bow-tie noodles according to the directions on the package. Drain. (One day I will make these myself here, but alas, I just roasted and peeled chestnuts!)
When the kasha is ready, combine with the noodles. Adjust the seasoning, sprinkle with the parsley and cilantro.