Isn't that a great name for a dish? Varnishkes - I don't really even know how to say it, but I like the pleasingly jarring sounds (I am the daughter of a speech therapist after all). I found this recipe in my book of Jewish cooking and had had it bookmarked for ages. It's a simple dish of mushrooms, pasta bows and buckwheat, but I had put off making it because I wanted to try it in all its original 'shroomy glory before tinkering with substitutes - and of course that meant waiting for an opportunity when The Fungus-Hater Scientist and I were eating separate meals.
It wasn't only the mushrooms that attracted me to this dish. There was also the buckwheat which I've been reading is a bit of a powerhouse, but which I've only previously put in one of my favourite seedy breads. There was the combination of buckwheat and pasta which sounded interesting. And then there was the dish's Eastern European origins which made me feel as though it should be part of my cultural heritage and I'm always one for a bit of getting back to my roots.
Buckwheat is one of those sneaky foodstuffs that pretends it's one thing but is actually another. In this case the little kernels you buy in the shop are not a grain, but the fruiting seed from the buckwheat. It's often toasted, in which case it becomes kasha. Mine was regular buckwheat but it got toasted as part of the recipe. Each little groat is also a nutritional angel, containing all the different types of essential amino acid, lots of fibre, and essential fatty acids (would you credit it, I just found a website called 'Buckwheat Health Benefits').
I made this dish a few weeks ago and had my recurring winter photography problems so the pictures aren't too good. Eventually I got fed up and just ate my dinner. Which was very nice. The buckwheat stays quite nubbly - one of those grains which is almost impossible to describe. It was simultaneously hard - a bit like bulgar but more so - and yet quite soft, but with a bit of chewiness. It was softer than spelt but had a more assertive presence than brown rice. Am I getting over how it tasted here?? Just try it. Its unusual texture partnered nicely with the soft pasta, and of course the mushrooms raised it to a new level of bliss. It made a really nice healthy satisfying dish, and all my amino acid receptors tingled with glee (Dr Eco Sis: I don't wish to know that there aren't such things. In my world everyone's body strives to a balance of humours and the uterus roves around a woman's body and can cause hysterical strangulation. In my world the date is somewhere around 1700...)
I have discovered in the last six months or so that I love almost every wholegrain going. Spelt? Loved it. Barley? Love it. Bulgar? Yum yum yum. Kamut? Don't know - the packet is still unopened, but I have high hopes. The only exception is amaranth which is (I believe) almost entirely pointless. You may laugh, but when we had one of our Friday night treat dinners this week The Scientist got a very colourful and healthy-looking microwave paella, and I made a dish of brown rice, wheatberries and mushrooms - and loved it. I didn't take a photo but there's a lot more in the freezer so I hope it will appear here at some stage. The Scientist isn't quite so universally enamoured of new grains so I tend to try them out on my own first. They have to pass the barley versus spelt test to move on to the joint menu planner: he finds the former too slimey but liked the latter when he tried it. Bulgar passed; amaranth, needless to say, did not. I can usually make some sort of assessment of whether he'll like a new grain on those grounds, but buckwheat defies classification a bit because of its unusual texture. It was close enough to bulgar that I'd try it, but I think I'd have a side-dish of mashed potato on standby just in case. For those grain lovers among us though: buckwheat rocks and I recommend that you get in touch with your Eastern-European amino-acid-loving heritage immediately.
Kasha varnishkes (from the Jewish Traditions Cookbook)
Serves 4-6 [I just made a little portion and had the leftovers cold for lunch)
25g dried well-flavoured mushrooms
500ml/ 2 1/4 cups boiling water or stock
3 tbsp vegetable oil
3-4 onions, thinly sliced
250g mushrooms, sliced
300g/1 1/2 cups whole coarse buckwheat
200g pasta bows
salt and ground black pepper
Put the dried mushrooms in a bowl, pour over half the boiling water or stock and leave to stand 20-30 minutes, until rehydrated. Remove the mushrooms from the liquid, then strain and reserve the liquid.
Heat the oil in a frying pan, add the onions and fry for 5-10 minutes until softened and beginning to brown. Remove the onions to a plate, then add the sliced mushrooms to the pan and fry briefly. Add the soaked mushrooms and cook for 2-3 minutes. Return the onions to the pan and set aside.
In a large, heavy frying pan, toast the buckwheat over a high heat for 2-3 minutes, stirring. Reduce the heat.
Stir the remaining boiling stock or water and the reserved mushroom soaking liquid into the buckwheat, cover the pan and cook for about 10 minutes until the buckwheat is just tender and the liquid has been absorbed.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pan of salted boiling water as directed on the packet, or until just tender, then drain.
When the kasha is cooked, toss in the onions and mushrooms, and the pasta. Season and serve hot.