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Classic Cookbooks: Kasha Varnishkes

As an undergrad, I spent a semester studying in Russia. Our host mothers urged hot kasha (referring to any kind of porridge) on us in the sub-zero mornings, and they served a different kind of kasha (buckwheat groats) as a side dish in the still-freezing evenings. When the time came to leave, one of the most pressing questions for many of us was, “Will I be able to find kasha in the United States?” Obviously, none of us had ever lived in cities with large Eastern European immigrant populations or been members of health-food co-ops, or we would have known that buckwheat groats aren’t hard to find at all.

Cooking them properly is a different matter. The first time I tried, I got it just right: the grains were separate, firm, and nutty. Since then I have tended to produce mushy messes that are edible but not appetizing. The Joy of Cooking recipe for kasha varnishkes yielded very nicely cooked buckwheat groats, but also the realization that I don’t particularly like this particular dish, which is kasha with mushrooms, onions, and bowtie pasta.

Most people seem to love the textural contrast between the kasha and pasta, but the bowties seemed out of place to me. I have a feeling this is something best served by your seasoned cook of a granny, not whipped up in a gadabout young person’s kitchen. I used vegetable oil instead of schmaltz, so maybe the problem lies there and not in my pots’ lack of tradition and memory. The onion and mushrooms, in any event, were wonderful, and I will definitely be adding them to kasha in the future. If you’ve never tried kasha, you really should; it’s wonderfully healthy and satisfying. Just check out if you don’t believe me.

Kasha varnishkes is definitely included in both the 1997 and 2006 editions of Joy, but if anyone out there has older editions I would love to hear whether it appears in the 1975 book or earlier. Though it would strike me as an odd inclusion for such an essentially Midwestern book, I am eager to be surprised. The 1997 edition included some exciting new foods, but apparently the original voice was almost entirely suppressed, accounting for the somewhat sterile feeling it’s always given me. It seems the 2006 edition restored the personality of the original book (not to mention the original and more delicious recipe for chicken divan), which means it’s time for me to add another cookbook to my wishlist.

About the author: Robin Bellinger recently escaped a career in book publishing, which was really cutting into her cooking time. Now she is a freelance editor and can bake bread on Tuesday afternoon if she feels like it. She lives in midtown Manhattan with her husband and blogs about cooking and crafting at home*economics.

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