Comfort Me with Kasha

October 6, 2010

Buckwheat kasha has been one of my favorite foods since I was little. My Russian-born mother always prepared kasha (buckwheat groats) exactly the same way that her mother and grandmother did before her. She poured the kasha into her big, blackened, aluminum skillet and mixed it with a lightly beaten egg until each grain was well coated. She then toasted it over medium-low heat until the grains were dry and separate, with a wonderful, nutty aroma. She slowly added homemade hot chicken soup, creating a giant cloud of steam. Mom covered the skillet and cooked the kasha on the stovetop until the grains were swollen, tender and fluffy, 10 to 15 minutes. Then she moved the pan off the heat and stirred in a big spoonful of golden schmaltz (chicken fat), salt and pepper, covered it and let it rest for 20 minutes. Then she tasted it, hot from the pot, to make sure it was just right…and it was.

Mom fried lots of chopped onions in more schmaltz until golden-brown. She usually liked to add varnishkes – homemade noodle dough that she rolled out, cut into small squares and boiled briefly. If she was short on time, she used macaroni, bow ties or tiny pasta shells. She mixed everything together, added more salt and pepper, then tasted it again to make sure it was well-seasoned…and it was.

The kasha tradition has continued in our family. My three grown children love kasha with bow ties and whenever they come for a visit, it’s on the menu. My sister’s three-year old grandson recently called her long distance, sobbing: “My mommy ate up all the kasha in the freezer that you made for me and now there’s none left!” Kasha – the ultimate comfort food.

Some Background on Buckwheat:
Kasha, also known as buckwheat groats, is at least a thousand years old and is one of the most popular traditional Jewish dishes in Eastern European cuisine. Originating in Asia, buckwheat was introduced into Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean by tribes migrating from Siberia and Manchuria. It came to the United States with German and Dutch settlers, who planted it in what is now New York. The word “buckwheat” comes from the Dutch “boekweit” (beech wheat) because the seed resembles a tiny beechnut. The hulled kernels of buckwheat are called groats. Roasting the buckwheat groats turns them into kasha and contributes to its nutty flavor.
Wolff’s Kasha is produced by The Birkett Mills, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of buckwheat products. The company mills virtually all of the buckwheat grown in America. Their products include cream of buckwheat cereal, buckwheat pancake mix, buckwheat flour, whole buckwheat groats, and of course, buckwheat kasha.
Kasha comes in whole kernels and in fine, medium and coarse granules. The fine granules cook the quickest. Coating kasha with an egg white or whole egg and stirring it constantly in a dry pan over medium heat for two to three minutes before adding boiling liquid coats the granules and keeps them separate so they won’t stick together when cooked. Whole kasha doesn’t need to be stirred with an egg because the coating keeps the kernels separate.

Buckwheat is gluten-free so is excellent for celiacs. It is a complete protein and contains all the essential amino acids, is a good source of fiber, helps lower cholesterol and is ideal for those with diabetes. One-quarter cup of dry kasha yields about 3/4 cup cooked and contains 170 calories, 6 g protein, 1 g fat (0 g saturated), 0 mg cholesterol 35 g carbohydrate, 2 g fiber, 220 mg potassium and 10 mg sodium. Kasha is rich in protein, particularly lysine, as well as iron, calcium and B vitamins.
Kasha Know-How:

• Kasha is often referred to as “Jewish K rations” along with favorite comfort foods such as knishes, kreplach and knaidlach.
• Kasha Varnishkas is the most popular way of preparing kasha and contains lots of fried onions, mushrooms (optional) and bow tie pasta. Some people sauté the onions first, mix the kasha with egg in a bowl and stir it into the onions for 2 minutes, then cook everything together. Others toast and cook the kasha/egg mixture first, then sauté the onions separately and add them at the end.
• Kasha Pilaf: Cook kasha according to package directions. (One cup dry kasha yields 3 cups cooked.) Stir in 1 cup each of sautéed onions and mushrooms. Optional add-ins can include grated carrots, red bell peppers, minced garlic, dried fruits (cranberries, raisins) and/or toasted nuts. Or add 2 cups of cooked squash cubes to kasha and season with dill.
• Kasha Stir-Fry: Stir-fry tofu, broccoli, carrots, onion, garlic and bean sprouts. Add cooked whole grain kasha and your favorite stir-fry sauce.
• Stuffed Shells: Fill jumbo pasta shells with cooked kasha laced with lots of fried onions; gently mix more fried onions with shells. Yummy!
• Kasha for Breakfast: Combine 3 Tbsp. medium kasha, a pinch of salt and 7/8 cup water (1 cup less 2 Tbsp) in a 3 cup microwaveable bowl. Microwave uncovered on High for 1 1/2 minutes. Stir well; microwave on Medium 3 minutes longer. Serve with brown sugar, milk and a dab of butter.
• Switch Around: Add kasha instead of rice or noodles to chicken soup. Kasha can replace rice, couscous or other grains in pilafs, salads, stuffing or casseroles.
• Vegetarians can toast kasha in 1 to 2 Tbsp. oil for 2 or 3 minutes. Substitute vegetable broth or water for chicken or beef broth, use pareve margarine or olive oil instead of schmaltz. Butter can be used for a dairy version.
• Be careful when adding hot liquid – add it slowly or it will “spit” back at you!
• Cooking time takes 10 to 15 minutes, depending on whether you’re making fine, medium or coarse kasha. After cooking, let stand covered for 20 minutes for light, fluffy kasha.
• To Reheat: Microwave covered on high, allowing about a minute for each cup of kasha.
• Freeze with Ease: Transfer cooked kasha to re-sealable freezer bags and freeze it flat. One cup of frozen kasha takes about 2 minutes on high to thaw and heat.
• Storage: Kasha will keep for one to two years in your pantry – check the expiry date marked on the package. After opening, place kasha in a re-sealable plastic bag and store it in a cool dry place.

Kasha Knish:
Instead of making individual knishes, my mother always made her kasha knish in a long roll, surrounded by this crispy, delicious dough.
Filling:
2 Tbsp canola oil
1 large or 2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
1 cup medium kasha (buckwheat groats)
2 1/2 cups boiling water or chicken soup (approximately)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Knish Dough:
1 egg
1/4 cup oil
1/4 cup warm water
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 1/4 cups flour

Filling: Heat the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven on medium. Add onions and sauté until brown, about 10 minutes. Add kasha and stir well. Brown the kasha over medium heat, stirring often, 2 to 3 minutes. When browned, carefully add boiling liquid to cover. Season with salt and pepper, cover and simmer 8 to 10 minutes, until water is absorbed. Let cool.

Knish Dough: In a food processor fitted with the Steel Blade, process egg, oil and water until mixed. Add salt, baking powder and flour; process just until blended, about 8 seconds. Do not over-process or the dough will become tough. (No food processor? Combine egg, oil and water in a large bowl and blend well. Add salt, baking powder and flour; mix to make a soft dough.)

Assembly: Divide dough into 2 pieces. Working with one piece at a time on a floured surface, coat dough lightly on all sides with a little flour and pat it into a rectangle. Roll as thin as possible into a large rectangle.

Place half the filling along one side, about 1 inch from edge. Roll up, turning in ends. Do not cut. Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Place seam-side down on parchment-lined baking sheet.

Bake in preheated 350°F oven for 35 minutes, until golden. Slice to serve.

Yield: 2 rolls (each roll makes 6 slices). Keeps 3days in the refrigerator. Reheats and/or freezes well.

Kasha and Vegetable Salad:
Kasha is one of my comfort foods, so this salad makes me very happy. It nourishes the body as well as the soul! You can use either coarse or medium kasha.
3 cups cooked kasha
1 English cucumber, unpeeled and chopped
1 red pepper, seeded and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1/4 cup minced fresh dill (or 1 tsp. dried dill)
1/4 cup bottled salad dressing (honey mustard, Vidalia onion or vinaigrette)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook the kasha as directed in package directions; cool completely. (Can be prepared in advance and refrigerated overnight.)
In a large bowl, combine cooked kasha with cucumber, red pepper, onion, celery, and dill. Add salad dressing. Season with salt and pepper to taste; mix well. Serve chilled.

Yield: 6 servings (about 1 cup each). Keeps 3 days in the refrigerator.

Norene Gilletz of Toronto, Canada is a cookbook author and food consultant. She is the author of eight cookbooks, including Norene’s Healthy Kitchen (Whitecap). Her motto is “Food that’s good for you should taste good.” She regularly supplies recipes for the Jewish holidays which are sent by the OU to newspapers all over North America.

Visit her website at http://www.gourmania.com, contact her at or call 416-226-2466.