12
Mar
2012
Jayne Cohen's picture

Kasha

Jayne Cohen

photo taken by Olga Massov, on October 27, 2008, CC licensing

As current economic shock waves trip an ancient collective memory of the lean wolf, huffing and puffing with winter's breath outside our door, we inevitably turn to starches.

This is not the time for tiramisu and airy mousses. You can't drown financial bitters with a sweet.

Think instead of a huge bowl of kasha, combined with tender egg noodles or moistened with soft-fried onions. And a small spoon. Jewish foods like these were meant to nourish fragile souls as well as hungry bodies.

Originally the word "kasha" was any porridge-a generic gruel made of barley or other available low-cost grains. But among Jews especially, it has come to mean buckwheat groats, the seeds of a plant related to sorrel and rhubarb that resembles cereals but grows rapidly in damp, windy, or cool climates or poor soils where true grains would not thrive.

Cheap and a good source of protein, everyday porridge buckwheat became a fancy treat when varnishkes (pasta), made from the costlier wheat flour, were stirred in. And before the potato, fried kasha was the latke choice on many Hanukkah tables.

With its full-flavored, nutty taste, kasha, coarse- or medium-grind, makes a deliciously rustic side dish. As a filling, it may be more finely ground when used to stuff poultry-duck, goose, and chicken-and breast of veal, knishes and strudels, kreplach and pierogi, and vegetables from cabbage to peppers.

To keep the kasha groats fluffy and separate, Jews traditionally combine the grains with a beaten egg, and toss the mixture over medium heat until the egg dries and a toasty aroma rises from the pan. Hot broth or water is then added, and the kasha simmered until tender.

Properly made, fluffy kasha could swallow up schmaltz (poultry fat) or butter by the cupful. In my family, while kasha was often served at meat dinners, it frequently turned up at dairy meals too, ladled with melted butter or dressed with rich sour cream (or both-especially luscious on kasha kreplach).

So I was quite surprised to read in Michael Wex's book, Born to Kvetch, that classic kasha is always assumed to be mixed with poultry schmaltz (making it a meat dish). Call someone "kasha mit maslinke" (kasha with buttermilk) and, according to Wex, you accuse him or her "of harboring unorthodox ideas, someone considered a little bit ‘tainted.'"

Here is a basic kasha recipe, with variations for dressing it up. The other recipe is not quite "kasha mit maslinke"-but it's a wonderfully unorthodox way to add butteriness to kasha varnishkes using cubes of sauteed eggplant, along with caramelized onions and mushrooms.

 

 

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