It happens, without fail—to me, to you, to everyone. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a vegetarian or a flexitarian, a carnivore or an omnivore, or any crossbreed of the above: the month of January, for culinarily inclined people, nearly always starts with a great and honest endeavoring towards more healthful, conscious eating, which is also why so many health-related food books show up everywhere at this time of year. But by the third or fourth week of the month (read: now), everyone I know is barreling towards the end zone, managing to squeak in just a teensy bit of duck fat to their grains or just a smidgen of lardons to their hydroponically-grown frisee. What happens when January is out and February is here? You’re back at square one with the comfort food. I know I am.
But this year, I tell myself, this year will be different. I will find a way to eat wheatberries and be happy about it. I will learn to cook amaranth, and get all warm and cozy and fuzzy, in that Moosewood sort of way. On a frigid, blustery morning, I will make breakfast porridge of hot quinoa drizzled with agave, instead of having bacon, egg, and cheese on a griddled roll. I will astound and amaze my internist, who will proclaim me a model patient as she reads my plummeting cholesterol report, and excises Crestor from the heart-medication cocktail I take every morning. I will, I will, I will.
Actually, no, I probably won’t.
So what am I supposed to do, now that I’ve made this annual grain-filled, cholesterol-lowering, healthy eating promise to myself, when all I really want to do is make Richard Olney’s beef daube and Suvir Saran’s Indian fried chicken and Suzanne Goin’s pork confit? I stand in my pantry as the snow falls and it’s 12 degrees outside, and my partner is begging me to throw out the bulghur wheat and make a gratin (of anything) instead; I stand in my pantry, and I peer at the shelves, waiting for the inspiration to leap out of the bags and the boxes, propelled by the ghosts of my long-dead Jewish bubbies who understood the rationale behind taking something really, really healthy and filling (like grains), and then putting their own flavor-packed spin on them. I can hear them saying it now: “Never mind, mamala. Zoftig is nice! You look so healthy! Here—have another bowl of kasha varnishes.”
This is the midwinter comfort food of my dreams that manages to marry grains (kasha or buckwheat groats) and pasta (as in bowties; this is Jew food, folks, so let’s not even call it “farfalle”) to onions caramelized in butter or, better still, chicken fat. Maybe Mitteleuropean Jews even use duck fat. I have that, too, leftover from when I made a big vat of cassoulet to celebrate the end of 2008. Right before I went on my grain binge.
But kasha varnishkes does (do?) count as a healthy, grain-based dish that manages to be comforting at the same time. What other grain dish do you find people swooning over the way they do over macaroni cheese? There is nothing else, and so that fact alone places a nutty, sweet, chewy, luscious, texture-filled baking dish of this utter goodness into a class by itself. Furthermore, if you do find yourself surrounded by real healthy-eating or kosher types, you can make it vegan by using oil instead of butter or animal fat. If you need to make it gluten-free, go ahead and substitute the wheat-based pasta with a rice-based substitute. Okay, so it involves tossing the kasha together with beaten egg and then toasting it in a dry pan, but you can use just egg white if you’re seriously watching your cholesterol intake, or omitting the egg altogether if you or your guests are vegan. It still works.
My only problem with making kasha varnishkes—that annual attempt on my part to combine the need for weighty, midwinter comfort food with the increased grain consumption I promised myself on January 1st—is the same problem that most of us afficionados have when it comes to this dish: one box of Wolff’s kasha and a bag of bow ties, tossed together with half a cup of caramelized onion, yields a lot (and I mean a lot) of comfort. Sure, you can freeze it. But trust me: you won’t need to.
Serves 3 to 4, or me
1 tablespoon vegetable oil (or canola oil, or chicken fat, or duck fat)
1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup kasha
1 large egg, beaten
2 cups water, chicken stock, or vegetable stock
1/2 pound bowties, cooked and drained according to package instructions
1. In a large, heavyweight skillet set over medium high heat, warm the oil until it shimmers. Add the onions and toss well. Lower the heat to medium low, cover, and continue to cook for 10 minutes, stirring often. When the onions have taken on a soft, jam-like consistency, remove from the heat and season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.
2. Place the kasha in a large, dry, heavyweight skillet set over medium heat, and add the egg. Stir the kasha frequently to keep it from sticking together, until every grain is coated with egg and begins to swell in size. Carefully pour in the stock, stir, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for approximately 10 to 12 minutes, until all the liquid is absorbed. Remove from the heat and fluff with a fork.
3. In a large, heated bowl, combine the kasha and half the onions together with the cooked bowties. Turn out into a large serving dish, and top with the remaining onions.
4. All will be right with the world.
© 2009 Elissa Altman. All rights reserved.