Friday, October 16, 2009

Kasha Spells Comfort

It's been a dark, rainy week here in Brooklyn. Just the right weather for comfort food.

And when I think "comfort food," I think "kasha varnishkes."

Never heard of it before?

Kasha is toasted hulled buckwheat and varnishkes is the Yiddish term for farfalle or bow-tie pasta.

It's a classic Eastern European dish that was imported to America (and, in particular, the Lower East side), by Russian Jewish immigrants (like my grandparents). Even though I was a picky eater as a kid, I had no problem finishing off a plate of my mother's kasha varnishkes.

Then, in my post-college years in the East Village, I regularly ordered kasha varnishes at Ukrainian restaurants like Veselka.

So now that I've become a bit more comfortable in the kitchen, I thought it was time I see if I can make the dish myself.

People are very passionate about their kasha varnishkes. When I posted on Facebook that I was making them, old friends came out of the woodwork to announce that it was their all-time favorite dish.

My idol Mark Bittman wrote about kasha varnishkes in The New York Times:

To make a completely authentic dish, you must cook the onions in chicken fat. (You can use olive oil, but it’s not the same.) You can buy chicken fat, but it’s easy enough just to save the excess fat from a few chickens that you are using for other dishes and freeze it. When you have about a cup, cut it up and cook it over very low heat until the fat is rendered and the solids crisp up (save those solids, and eat them on crackers). Onions are never better than when cooked in chicken fat.

Unfortunately, I didn't have any chicken fat, but thanks to Avo, I had fresh chicken stock to cook the kasha. You can't have everything!

Kasha Varnishkes
(adapted from Mark Bittman)

3 cups chopped onion
3 tablespoons neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn (not olive oil!)
1 egg
1 cup kasha
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups chicken, beef or vegetable stock
1 to 2 tablespoons butter (optional -- I skipped it)
1 pound of farfalle (bowtie pasta)

1. Put the onion in a large skillet with a lid over medium heat. Cover the skillet and cook for about 15 minutes, until the onion is dry and almost sticking to the pan. Add the 3 tablespoons oil, raise the heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring, until the onion is nicely browned, another 15 minutes or so.

2. Meanwhile, beat the egg, then toss it in a bowl with the kasha. Put the mixture along with some salt and pepper in a heavy, large, deep skilled over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring, until the mixture smells toasty, about 3 minutes.

3. Turn the heat to a minimum, carefully add the stock, and stir once. Cover and cook until the liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes (it took me much longer because my stock wasn't entirely defrosted). Turn off the heat. Stir in the onion, taste, and adjust the seasoning.

4. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. When the kasha is just about done (or is already resting), cook 1 pound of farfalle pasta until it's tender, but not mushy. Drain it, reserving some of the cooking water. Use a fork to toss the pasta with the kasha and onions, adding some butter (if you want) and enough of the reserved cooking water to make the dish a little creamy.

The steps are simple enough, but it was hard for me to manage the timing of it all. Also, I realized too late that I don't have enough covers for my pans (so I used a large serving plate instead).

My other mistake -- I forgot to reserve some of the cooking water from the pasta and didn't add butter. So the result was not as creamy as Bittman recommends, but it still hit the spot.

Avo, who has never been a fan of kasha varnishkes, said that mine was even better than Veselka's. It would have tasted even better if I had made a pot roast and gravy to serve with it!

As if that wasn't enough comfort food for one day, I went ahead and baked oatmeal cookies (without the chips) with the kids.

A very comforting day!


Dori said...

When you cook skin-on chicken, save the fat in a container in your freezer and, voila, you have chicken fat! I always like to save it up for the big annual latke-fest known as Hanukkah (or, actually, any time of year I happen to be making them).

Undomesticated Me said...

Thanks for the tip!

Bernie Bernstein said...

It's Me, Mom - Just got around to catching up on your blog since our trip to NY. About the chicken fat...forget it. That's something that's sure to clog your arteries.