The first time I had kasha varnishkes was with a friend from college. We were in NYC together, (for what I cannot recall) and she thought I was long overdue for a visit to proper Jewish cafeteria. It wasn’t Katz’ which I’ve come to know later in life, but some other deli-slash-cafeteria that has a vaguely mid-town feel to it in my memory. Odd.
At any rate, up until then, I had never heard the term “kasha” though I think I’d had tabbouleh. Still the monotone look of the dish was not dramatic or tremendously appealing. The thought of a grain with a pasta seemed curiously redundant, too. What I loved was the feel of the place: old people who looked like they could have stepped right out of the shtetl. People who could have been their Americanized grandkids, sprinkled in between. Zero atmosphere. These old country, home-style dishes from a cultural tradition not my own, seemed to bear a passing resemblance to my Hungarian grandmother’s dishes. Cabbage, noodles and other humble, filling foods were in every steam table. I recognized the use-everything-waste-nothing peasant ethic in the cooking. This was the food of my people.
Ellen had that small grin that always made you think she’d just done something a little naughty or was contemplating doing so soon. And you wanted in. She had a funny little dog that was half coyote which was apparent whenever the dog opened her mouth to “talk.” “Blood-curdling” is not being unkind. I loved that she named that dog Ingrid. Ironically glamorous but it seemed to give Ingrid self-confidence or at least something to aspire to. It was the kind of thing Ellen would do.
Ellen had patience with people too. Grace with their foibles or even their small cruelties. She was a massage therapist who could crack nuts with her bare fingers, but she was very gentle in her demeanor. She seemed very at peace with herself. Through her, I saw a different way to be in the world. I learned about the dying Yiddish language, about Jewish soul food.
And, I discovered the comfort to be found in a simple bowl of buckwheat groats and bow-tie pasta.
You call these bow-ties?
Decidedly UN-Kosher Kasha Varnishkes AKA Shiksa Varnishkes
Technically it’s Shiksa Kasha because the “varnishkes” are bow-tie shaped pasta. I like the way "Shiksa Varnishkes" sounds and it evokes the original dish better than "Shiksa Kasha" does. (By the way, shiksa is a gentile girl in case you were wondering.)
At the risk of losing my honorary membership in the tribe, I offer today’s luncheon special. This is a riff on the Kasha Varnishkes recipe at Epicurious (I can hear you now, Epicurious? For Jewish food? The recipe came from Joan Nathan, so I trust it.)
The Leather District Gourmet's Shiksa Varnishkes
In my version, I wanted to amplify the umami and to use up what I had on hand: cooked elbows, mushrooms, and leeks. Traditionally, the dish is made with bow-tie pasta. I also found the offal of a chicken in the freezer, so I thawed and chopped that up, too. Offal is trayf which is to say forbidden (literally, I think, “unclean” or “trash”) so this version really goes beyond untraditional. But it’s also really good.
- 1 C finely chopped leeks (white and light green parts)
- 1/3 C shallots, finely diced (these and the leeks I had on hand, feel free to sub more traditional onion) chicken liver, heart, gizzard finely chopped
- 3-4 cremini mushrooms, or more, halved then sliced
- 1 clove garlic, finely minced
- 2 to 3 tablespoons butter (if you have schmaltz or chicken fat, by all means use that, your result will be richer)
- 1 large egg white, slightly beaten
- 1 cup medium or coarse kasha
- 1/4 C Palomino Fino or dry sherry (medium-dry amontillado would work as well, I think)
- 2 cups chicken broth (reserve a quarter cup)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 3/4 pound large or small bow tie-shaped noodles (or whatever smallish pasta you might have in the fridge)
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- Porcini salt
- Hungarian Paprika
- Freshly ground coriander seed to taste
- Sauté the leeks and shallots (or onions, thinly sliced) in 2 tablespoons of butter or chicken fat in a heavy frying pan or heavy-bottomed sauce pan, until golden, just beginning to caramelize. Add Mushrooms, garlic, finely minced offal. Remove to a plate.
- Beat the egg white in a small mixing bowl and stir in the kasha. Mix, making sure all the grains are coated. Put the kasha in the same frying pan, set over a high heat. Flatten, stir, and break up the egg-coated kasha with a fork or wooden spoon for 2 to 4 minutes or until the egg has dried on the kasha and the kernels brown and mostly separate. (this is wild, but it works.)
- Add the broth, reserving about a 1/4 C to see if the kasha needs it. Add salt and pepper to the frying pan and bring to a boil. Add the sauteed vegetables, cover tightly, and cook over low heat, steaming the kasha for 10 minutes. Remove the cover, stir, and quickly check to see if the kernels are tender and the liquid has been absorbed. You may need to add a bit more broth to finish the kasha. If so, it should only take a couple minutes more.
- Meanwhile, warm up your pre-cooked leftover pasta in the microwave. Add a little stock or water and then drain.
- When the kasha is ready, combine with the noodles. Adjust the seasoning, sprinkle with the parsley and paprika, mushroom salt and some freshly ground coriander seed. A little pat of butter or bit of schmaltz wouldn’t hurt but isn’t necessary with the addition of the mushrooms and chicken bits.
A note about this lovely Porcini Salt
You can find this salt at Earthy Delights, a sponsor of this blog. I have a Rosemary version, a Yuzu citrus version and this Porcini one. Anytime I'm reaching for a salt where the crunch of minerally flake like this is nice (say to finish a salad) or the depth of the flavor would be enhanced by the umami in porcini or the herbaceous scent of rosemary, I find these wonderful salts come in handy.