Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Call of Kasha Varnishkas

My Grandfather Jonas (far left) at
his grandparent's wedding anniversary
Let me start by saying I'm a yekke through and through. My Jewish ancestors settled in the Rhineland Pfaltz sometime around 1450. They lived there until a gentleman named Hitler came into power and decided that they shouldn't anymore. That's another story.

What I'm trying to say is that I have no claim whatsoever to what is thought of as Ashkenazic Cooking. My grandparents were set adrift in the world too young to really learn how their mothers cooked (16 and 18) and the yekke food traditions, for the most part, vary greatly from the food of Russia and Poland that is thought of as traditional Ashkenazic food.

The traditions that endure in my Jewish family are all English - the country where my grandparents met as refugees and began married life. Jewish cooking in my brain (prior to adult life) was marmalade and tea, toad in the hole, trifle, and leg of lamb that my grandfather learned how to make while interned on the Isle of Mann. Zwetschkuchen for Rosh HaShannah, homemade apple sauce for Hannukah and matzo ball soup that my grandmother mastered after arriving in the US, all have their place. But the fact remains, the yekke do not eat like the rest of the Ashkenazim, and often rather proudly so.

So, why is this yekke making Kasha Varnishkes? I saw a recipe in Bon Appetite.

There's a great section every issue on using seasonal or rarely used ingredients, and this month they were featuring buckwheat and their groats, also known as kasha. This thought was enough to have me grab theManischewitz Bow Tie Pasta and the Wolff's Kasha as part of the weekly shopping trip, with the plan of having them in the pantry for the next time I had a craving.

The craving came sooner than expected. While at my brother's on Saturday, he handed me his 2nd Avenue Deli Cookbook. A plan was hatched and tonight's dinner ensued.

This was my starting point for ingredient ratios, Second Helpings, Please! Gay gave me this book from the Montreal Jewish Community for our wedding. It has been my go to book when I need a recipe for a dish so down home and basic that no one thinks to actually write down. This book tells you what it is you're supposed to do to actually make it taste delicious.

So, I had schmaltz in the upstairs freezer and a pint of homemade stock reduction in the downstairs (I added 1 cup of water). I had 5 cups of onions, 2 eggs and 1 1/2 cups kasha. Last but not least, I had 8 oz of the bowtie pasta. I don't know why the pasta has to be bowtie. It just does.
Time to get to work.

Leah's Kasha Varnishkas

1/4 cup schmaltz
5 cups onions, chopped
3 cups stock
1 1/2 cups kasha
2 eggs, beaten
7 oz pkg of Bow Tie Pasta
Parsley, dried

Step 1: Melt 1/4 cup of schmaltz. Set your onions going in them over a medium flame. We're aiming for caramelized. These are about halfway there.

Step 2: Get your stock boiling. Mix the raw kasha with 2 beaten eggs. In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast them until the separate out into individual kernels. Add the boiling stock. Cover and let sit over medium heat until all the liquid is absorbed.

Step 3: Cook your pasta. Make sure to season your water well with salt. This is a dish of brown goodness, but it should not taste brown. 

Here's one of the places where I went wrong. I'd heard a deli owner say on 'Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives' that the pasta in kasha varnishkas should be a little overcooked, because "it's Jewish." I figured they were making a big batch, he must have overcooked it and was making a joke. I figured, "We're the Wolff-PELLINGRA household. I know how to cook pasta. No way am I going to over cook it." Why O why do I always assume I know better? Truth: if you're making kasha varnishkas, let your pasta overcook a bit. This dish doesn't know from al dente.

Step 4: Combine all ingredients. Scrape all that good schmaltz from the onions into the mix. Add a bit of salt, some black pepper, some dried parsley if you're feeling fancy. Combine. Eat and prepare to sit on your couch like a schlub and groan as your brain melts. It is sit in your belly, hold you warm through that cold Russian winter kind of food. 

Truth be told, the first bite was not quite the hyped, long anticipated perfection I was looking for. I was strongly reminded that kasha varnishkas is a simple food. I was a bit disappointed. I gave myself a pep talk of, "This is the Anthony Bourdain peasant food, the food eaten because it's what could be afforded. It reaches it's revered status because it reminds folks of their Bubbe's table when there was more joy than money to be had. You are not Thomas Keller and this is not a tasting menu at The French Laundry." 

My disappointment was not helped by my picky eater of a 2 year old who refused to even take one bite. "Eh," I thought, "It's warm and good. Good enough." I started to clean up. Just for kicks, I had a taste of the now cooling kasha varnishkas as I scraped them into the ziploc container. 

Heaven. The schmaltz had soaked into the pasta and groats, taking the caramelized flavor of the onions with it. The salt and parsley had also melded in and I thought to myself, "Ahhhh. Yum. THAT's what I was looking for. Now, if only I could get my toddler to eat this..."

All in all, a successful venture. I'll have to start thinking about what other classic Ashkenaz recipes I can tackle. I make challah most weeks, and made round challot for the High Holy Days. I can make Zwetschekuchen and German cheesecake well. I've done brisket, tzimmes, noodle kugel, pesachtik sponge and carrot cake. I attempted matzo balls without my mom's help, but it was a no go. I shall have to try those again one of these days. I only tried making cholent once, and I burned the heck out of it. Any suggestions/requests for the next project?

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