Kasha Varnishkas

Each of us is responsible for taking some piece of our parents and grandparents knowledge about the world into the future. If we don’t do this, who will? Wouldn’t the world be a more dangerous place if the only people who knew how to make pickles were huge corporations? The piece of that past that I am carrying forward is home cooking. I’ve been building my knowledge of what to cook and how to make it since I was a boy watching my grandmother make the foods I loved to eat. She would role out her own strudel dough on a bed sheet on the kitchen table until it was so thin you could read a newspaper through it. I still don’t know how to do that. She was gone before I had a chance to make strudel dough with her. I tried to make up for that by learning everything else that grandmothers around the world knew how to make, or at least dishes they were willing to teach their children, who then wrote cookbooks, food blogs, or You Tube videos, all of which I search out to learn to cook something new, forcing my long suffering wife, Sonja, to sample. Fortunately, I live in a diverse metropolis with many shops specializing in groceries from all over the world. But that is the subject for another time.

Last night I made Kasha Varnishkas as I do at least once a year, usually in winter. Sonja didn’t like this particular version. I had not roasted the buckwheat properly and the distinctive nuttiness of the grain was missing. She is my toughest critic. I can’t get anything by her. In one of its many variations, Kasha Varnishkas is a combination of four primary ingredients : cooked buckwheat (whole grain or milled groats of various sizes), onions, crimini mushrooms, and medium shell pasta. My grandmother made it for my father, sending a bowl of it home with him. He visited her on his way home from work every day. This ‘present’ was to my mother’s chagrin, since Grandma didn’t bother to ask her if she had anything planned for dinner. Dad preferred Grandma’s cooking over Mom’s any day. So did I. Mom wasn’t a bad cook. She was the product of the mid-twentieth century. Her imagination had been captured by ‘convenience’ processed foods. She knew better. Her mother was a great cook and taught her youngest daughter everything she knew. There was no organ in any domestic animal that my mother could not cook five different ways. For decorum’s sake you should trust me here when I insist that her skills extended to every organ. She insisted that nothing should be wasted long before contemporary chefs popularized the idea of respecting the whole animal.

Kaska is the Russian word for porridge or gruel. For Russians it refers to any toasted grain cooked in a liquid until it softens. For Jews, kasha means buckwheat porridge. When these grains are toasted and cooked in water or stock, they form a mush, like oatmeal, that has a pleasing nutty flavor. If after roasting you allow the grains to cool, and then fold in a beaten egg yolk, giving the grains an hour or so to absorb it, when you then cook the grains in liquid they soften, but remain intact, like steamed rice. This was the preferred method for cooking buckwheat kasha among Ashkenazi Jews.

Varnishkas is the Yiddish form of the Russian word varenichki, the diminutive of vareniki. These are small, stuffed dumplings like Italian tortellini. The word can refer to any filled dumpling. For Eastern Jews, buckwheat kasha was a preferred filling for anything that could be stuffed. It filled bread dough pouches, like Spanish, actually Sephardic, empanadas. It filled potato dough, like Polish pierogi (Yiddish: kreplach). It filled strudel dough like a Turkish börek, at which point it became my Grandma’s kasha knish, the all-time favorite food of my boyhood. It was to make knishes that my grandmother rolled out that ultra-thin strudel dough.

The dish that Jews call Kasha Varnishkas, ironically, involves no stuffed dough of any kind. Instead, al dente pasta is folded into the liquid the buckwheat is cooking in with about five minutes to go. Mark Bittman and many other Jewish cooks insist that this must be falfalle, the bowtie shaped pasta. My Grandma disagreed with everyone else, as she so often did, and insisted on using medium pasta shells. She said they filled up with the kasha, and therefore tasted better. Neither the bow tie nor shell shapes are original to the dish. They both were adopted after immigration to the U.S. Joan Nathan cites the 1925 edition of the Settlement House Cookbook, a late edition of the first Jewish cookbook in English, where the recipe for Kasha Varnishkas is indeed kasha stuffed into little circles of dough and sealed, like Turkish mante, and served boiled with sour cream!

Of course, there is more to Kasha Varnishkas than pasta and buckwheat. Ask any Jew what the dominant flavor of Kasha Varnishkas is and they undoubtedly will say cooked onions. No less an authority on Jewish cooking than Claudia Roden insists the onions were always added after the pasta, so as not to diminish their assertive sweetness. It’s the same with mushrooms. Use chopped crimini and the flavor is lost in mix. Use bolitis or shiitake and the mushroom asserts itself against the onion. Both of these are strong umani flavors that are easily eclipsed if added to the buckwheat at the same time as the stock, itself full of umani flavor. Salt and pepper are added early and then again at the end to add balance in the final dish.

And then there is that last, secret ingredient: the fat from some form of fowl. For my Grandma, it was chicken fat. For me, it is the goose or duck fat I save from project cooking with these fowl around the holidays. Why add the fat? Aside from the few teaspoons required to fry the onions or mushrooms, some fat at the end brings everything together. This is true of other European dishes as well, whether it is olive oil or butter added at the end of the cooking to bring out the richness of the dish. For Eastern Jews, that function is performed by fat rendered from a fowl. Those two tablespoons will not be noticed in the six to eight cups of the finished Kasha Varnishkas, except in their absence.

A dish of Kasha Varnishkas is not only tasty on its own. It plays very well with roasted meats and tofu. When I eat it, I think of Grandma and all the things I should have asked her about the foods she knew and how she adapted them after immigrating. Was pasta ever added to other grains, like barley or millet? Did she ever add nuts to enhance the nuttiness of the buckwheat? What did she use for pasta before she found boxes of dried shell shaped pasta in American markets? Did she ever stuff dough as the original Settlement House Cookbook suggests? I’ll never know. That’s why I keep making these dishes, carrying them into the future before they, too, are lost.