caramelized onions, chestnuts, Jewish, kasha varnishkes, nostalgia, peasant food, Russian, rustic, toasted buckwheat groats
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.
Amanda, beautiful post, I was whisked away in your memories, so vivid and beautifully written. I also love the recipe, it is truly comfort food at its finest. PS you should enter this in Food52’s current contest and include this write up. It’s a wonderful recipe and the memories are part of what makes this dish so special.
Thanks so much! I really love your comment. Great idea. I’ll definitely look into the food52 contest. You’re so sweet. In making it I just assumed my grandma always boiled the whole thing. I didn’t realize there were processes involved. I’m so glad I did this. Thanks again.
Mad Dog said:
Kasha Varnishkas – wow that sounds like an exotic fortune teller. I’m sure it’s absolutely delicious!
I collect chestnuts from Hyde Park and take gardening gloves to handle the prickly things. I’ve discovered that the nuts can simmered in water for 15 minutes and are easier to peel. Once peeled they can be frozen for a later date too.
BTW – I like your new header, it’s very chic 😉
Thanks, MD. It took me forever to find a header I liked. 🙂 That’s so cool that you found an easier way to peel chestnuts. I totally ruined my manicure on these yesterday!! I hadn’t even think of freezing them. I hardly ever freeze things, but I also hate throwing things out. I need to be better about it. As for the kasha, I wish I could send you some. It’s comfort food at its best.
Mad Dog said:
I don’t have a manicure, but peeling the damn things does get painful after a while. They seem to peel easier when hot, but cool down very quickly. They are ready to pick here in September and October, so in order to have the foraged variety in Christmas stuffing, freezing comes in handy. I don’t notice any flavour difference as a result 😉
That’s a great tip. And yes, you have to peel them while they’re hot, thus the burns and cuts. My hands are pretty awesome. 🙂
I love kasha but wouldn’t ever have thought of mixing it with pasta! Caramelized onions and chestnuts certainly makes this feel both comfy and special at the same time. And beautiful words put to great memories! I just love reading your stories. My mom NEVER made anything like this dish when I was a kid (and the picky Darya I was back then wouldn’t have eaten it anyway…), I’ll ask her if she ever ate anything like it as a child growing up in the Soviet Union.
Thank you, Darya. Really, your mom never made kasha varnishkes? I wonder why. It’s all my grandma ever made! I was such a picky eater too. For years all I would eat was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I remember long nights at the table where my parents made me sit as long as it took for me to eat the whole thing. I memorized the cracks in the walls. What a brat I was! I hated kasha…except I loved the bowtie pasta, which was the only reason I ate it. I’m really glad you like my stories. I like reading about your life too 🙂
Haha! I remember my mom calling the pediatrician as ALL I would eat (literally) was pea purée and cocktail sausages. She said something like “Thank God she eats at least that”. I also remember sitting at the table until late at night NOT eating whatever was set in front of me. Oh well… I’ll ask my mom about varnishkas, maybe it’s just something she never made for us!
Nancy @ feasting with friends said:
Lovely post and delicious recipe, Amanda! xx
Thanks so much, Nancy.
Jovina Coughlin said:
We both had chestnuts on our minds this week.
My mother-in-law is of Polish heritage and she always had Kasha on the table and I think I would have liked it a whole lot better if is was fixed the way you do – especially with the addition of pasta. You have turned kasha into a gourmet dish.
Ha! Thanks, Jovina. That’s so funny about the chestnuts. I had to elevate the kasha because on it’s own, I just…cannot. I needed to add my own touch. It really turned out so well.
Anna Buckley said:
A beautiful and evocative piece of writing Amanda. Chestnuts are uncommon in Australia, but I will remember to hunt around next Autumn and see if I can fund them. The chicken stock and onions…I can almost taste what they’d bring to this dish. Thanks for opening me up to a brand new food experience.
Thanks so much. You guys have such good food in Australia, but it would be funny to know that someone was eating kasha varnishkes there! Chestnuts are delicious, but they are a lot of trouble sometimes.
This dish always takes me back to when I was living in NYC and had the good fortune of being able to eat at fabulous Jewish delis. I would always order a side of this because I enjoyed it so much. This looks great!
Thanks, Serena. They really do have such great delis here. It’s hard for me to order anything but pastrami and barley soup. Everything else sends me down memory lane and then I need a beer! Thanks for stopping by.
Lovely pictures for an exotic dish! Foods connectede with pleasant memories are always our favourites! I did not know you had to go through all that pain to get the chestnuts peeled. I would look for peeled nuts in a packet…you are amazing!
Thanks so much. What a great idea. I guess I just have so many memories associated with it, I figured I’d try my hand at them. It’s a pretty good dish when done right. Thanks again.
My grandmother used to make kasha too. I only ever enjoyed it with bow-tie pasta, and even then, rarely, but this post brings back such memories. I need to make this!
Aw…I bet you still won’t like it, because I’m iffy on it, but made with chestnuts, a little butter, even mushrooms elevates this dish and I actually enjoyed it as a hearty side. Nice to hear from you 🙂 xo
Traditionally Modern Food said:
Bwautifully written and nice pics
Thank you so much 🙂
Lovely post Amanda and I love this kind of comfort food. Certain food are so evocative with our childhood, the smell, the colors and I think it’s unique 🙂
You’re so right. It’s a unique dish and a unique feeling that comes with it. Comfort food in a deeper sense. Have a great rest of the week!
My Kitchen Witch said:
Great use of those roast chestnuts! And fantastic story (as usual!) with a twist of family history. I love kasha, but unlike you, it is a recently acquired taste. I’ve been wanting to experiment with kasha in cabbage rolls or even grape vine leaves. This combination with chestnut might be the thing to try, though I might add dill instead of cilantro. Hmm…lots of good ideas here.
Thank you! I’m still waiting to see what you do with your chestnuts. I don’t know if I’ve ever acquired the taste of kasha, but it was an inevitable part of my growing up and I was seduced by bowtie pasta. Oh I think putting it in cabbage rolls or grape vine leaves is a brilliant idea, with tomato sauce or even just steamed. Dill would be good too. I just always have cilantro on hand and it traditionally calls for parsley, which oddly, I don’t like (probably because of being traumatized by another Passover tradition involving salt water and parsley). Can’t wait to see what you have coming. I love your little icon btw!
Maria Dernikos said:
I have never heard of this dish. The association with your grandmother interests me, where about in Russia would this dish have been eaten? Its nice to connect with food makes the dish taste all the better.
Hi Maria! So nice to see you. It’s funny that your last post and mine were so rich with childhood memories. It’s amazing how food has such power. I’m not sure where in Russia this would have come from, actually. But you’re right, the connections and associations elevates a normal dish to something so much more gratifying. xo
K. / Pure & Complex said:
I’ve never heard of this dish before, but you have definitely peeked my interest. This looks amazing.
Thanks so much for your comment. It’s definitely comfort food at its best. I’m glad i was able to add to it so it wasn’t exactly like my grandma’s.
How often is this my comment on your posts? Beautiful words, beautiful pictures. That’s just always what comes to mind!
I started making kasha varnishkes in one of my many attempts to get my husband interested in his Eastern European Jewish heritage. He’s always been like “well, it’s not bad but who wouldn’t like starches and delicious fat?” So, OK, when we make it now, it’s because I want it! And chestnuts? Well, that’s just a perfect addition.
Your comment means so much. Thank you. I put a lot of thought and effort in and is so nice to hear that someone i respect and who dies the same appreciates it. I love what you’re doing with your husband. He probably needs memories attached. If you are ever in ny i have a food tour that might help him. All the best delis. I have that issue with my own husband. He was born here but his while family is from and still in Colombia, except for his parents. He’s so thoroughly American that i keep making Colombian dishes just to keep it real. 😉
dedy oktavianus pardede said:
i really want your ethniv fancy looking skillet…….
no matter what you’ve served it on it, lol
lovin chestnut all the way!!!
Ha! I go camping with that thing. It’s fire proof.
janet shields said:
I have little interest in the dish, but your use of words describing it and your memories, brought me to tears…..
Thank you so much, Janet. That means a lot. And frankly if it didn’t have such memories is be okay not eating these ever either. 😉 im moved by your comment.
Fae's Twist & Tango said:
Another nostalgic memories of your Grandma. This truly is an interesting dish. Coming with nostalgia, it is especially spacial. This is the fourth recipe I see photo of chestnuts in it, and I just posted one too. 🙂
So funny about the chestnuts. It’s that time of year! This is the first memory of this grandma that I’ve written about. My other culinary memories are from my dad’s side. I think that’s why this is so powerful. It’s really the only one i have if her. Thanks as always, Fae. Im going over to check yours or right now.
This was a very interesting post, Amanda, and you taught me a few things. Though I’ve heard of kasha, I’ve never known its ingredients nor how it was prepared. I love preparing recipes that i so closely identify with a loved one now gone, It’s my way of bringing them back into the kitchen with me. i bet you can almost feel your Grandma looking over you shoulder while you fix her kasha. We didn’t have access to chestnut trees but they were a part, the finale, of all of our holiday meals. Imagine stuffing yourself with antipasti, pasta, some meat course with sides, fruit & cheese, a dessert with coffee, and then out comes the chestnuts. It’s a wonder that any of us were able to leave the table. Wishing you and yours the very best of holidays!
What a wonderful tradition your family had, John. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. It really did feel like a presence. That’s what was so strange about it. It was the only time I’ve ever really felt that I wasn’t alone there in the kitchen. I mean, I never feel alone, but this was really special. I tried to convey it without seeming bizarre in the post. I’m glad you know how that is. Chestnuts are truly a wonderful thing too. The best to you and yours as well. I really appreciate your comments.
love in the kitchen said:
A truly lovely piece of writing Amanda – which serves to remind me to spend some real time on my own blog sometime soon! I’ve been letting things slide. Pulled in so many directions. life…You’ll inspire me yet.
The dish reminds me of my love affair with lentils and rice – peasant food with earthy undertones but so satiating and satisfying and somehow so evocative of home. And the roasted chestnuts – interesting that we all seem to have important memories of chestnuts.
Beautiful. As always.
Thanks so much, Lindy. You’ll get to the blog when you can. I used to judge myself for maybe 2 years for leaving a manuscript behind. I probably still should be judging myself but I had this nagging feeling for years, every day “write. write. write.” Maybe if I had, I wouldn’t be doing this. Maybe this will lead me back to it. Who knows. You can only do what’s best for you in the moment (not recklessly) and know that everything comes in its own time. I need to see your lentils and rice recipes. My husband loves lentils and rice. They were on his Colombian table growing up with every meal. His mom has taught me so much about cooking. I hope you’re well. xoxo