New Year’s Revolution by Elissa Altman explores that annual attempt at a New Year’s resolution and then the eventual revolt and return to comfort. Perhaps moderation can be found somewhere in between.
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 wife 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.”
☞ MAKE THE RECIPE: KASHA VARNISHKES
This is the midwinter comfort food of my dreams that manages to marry grains (kasha or buckwheat groats) and pasta (as in bow ties; 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. Originally published January 23, 2009.