None of my Russian Jewish friends who immigrated to the United States were familiar with kasha varnishkes back in the U.S.S.R., and our parents couldn’t tell us much about it either. And yet, all my American Jewish friends knew of it from early childhood, recalling eating it around the holidays.
It appears that kasha varnishkes traded the old country for its new adopted home. Which is too bad, because buckwheat, pasta and onions were always in plentiful supply in most Soviet homes.
In the States, you’ll find kasha varnishkes on many Ashkenazi holiday tables for Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Hanukkah and Purim as well as for a Shabbat meal, often alongside roasted chicken or brisket, the latter working particularly well with the dish that is great for sopping up brisket gravy. Around Sukkot, which marks the end of harvest and where courses often include seasonally available fruits and vegetables, kasha varnishkes, though a supporting player, holds the role similar to stuffing or dressing around Thanksgiving.
It may not be flashy, but without it a meal somehow seems incomplete.
I love that kasha varnishkes doesn’t require precision, can be made in parts and thrown together later, scales up easily, is inexpensive to make and freezes like a charm. In other words, make double the amount you need for a meal and freeze the rest — your future self will be grateful.
As often as you will find an adoring kasha fan, you’ll also meet someone who will disdain its basic components. Food writer Leah Koenig writes in her cookbook “Modern Jewish Cooking” that some may dismiss kasha varnishkes as a “dry and tasteless dish, but that simply means they have not had it made properly. And by properly, I mean made with a delightfully obscene amount of fat.”
I couldn’t agree more with Koenig. Kasha varnishkes shines, and I mean really shines, when you use an ample amount of fat to make it. My choice of fat is schmaltz (chicken fat) or duck fat, both of which I keep in my fridge, but olive oil or any neutral oil works well. If you plan to serve this as part of a dairy spread (and keep kosher), butter or vegan butter is downright delightful.
Though bow-tie pasta, sometimes known as farfalle, is the preferred noodle of choice, that seems to be an American adaptation, which took hold in the 20th century, so if you like a different noodle shape or prefer to make your own, by all means go ahead. Delicate strands of homemade egg noodle will only enhance the dish.
The onions can be cooked to your level of liking: lightly caramelized, the color of mahogany or even crisped up and “bien cuit” if you like a little burned onion crunch (I do). The only rule for kasha varnishkes where onions are concerned — and this is generally true for all savory Ashkenazi Jewish cooking — is to use lots of them. Yellow onions are my favorite and are least expensive, but Vidalias enhance the dish with their mellow sweetness.
A personal rule: I never skip mushrooms in my kasha varnishkes. Not only do they make a dish suitable for vegetarians and vegans as well as gluten-free folks, but the mushrooms deliver a dose of umami and allow the dish to stand on its own as a meat-free main course.
And because I’m nothing if not true to my roots, I like to add a generous heap of chopped dill and parsley right before serving, because they also imbue the kasha with fresh flavor and a pop of color, which will make your table look more festive.
And should you have leftovers the next day (lucky you) consider crisping leftover kasha in a skillet — with more fat, of course — and topping with an egg, for a scrappy, delicious savory breakfast or lunch that will surely feel anything but meager.
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Storage Notes: Leftover kasha varnishkes can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 1 month. See NOTES for reheating instructions.
- 2 cups chicken broth or water
- 1/2 cup (4 ounces) plus 2 tablespoons schmaltz (chicken fat), divided (may substitute duck fat, olive oil, neutral oil or unsalted butter, see NOTES)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt or fine sea salt, divided, plus more for cooking the pasta
- 1 cup (7 1/4 ounces) uncooked buckwheat groats
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided, plus more to taste
- 8 ounces bowtie pasta (farfalle)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 medium-to-large yellow onions (20 to 24 ounces total), halved and thinly sliced
- 12 ounces fresh mushrooms, such as button or baby bella, stemmed, halved through the cap and sliced (See NOTES)
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh dill, plus more for serving (optional)
- Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for serving
Fill a large pot with generously salted water and bring to a boil over high heat.
In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the broth or water, 2 tablespoons of schmaltz and 1/2 teaspoon of salt and bring to a boil.
While the water and broth come to a boil, in a large wide saucepan over medium-high heat, stir together the buckwheat with the egg until combined. The buckwheat will clump together, but that’s okay. Cook, stirring constantly, until the buckwheat starts to smell nutty and separates into individual groats, about 6 minutes. Add the hot broth or water (from the small saucepan) and season with 1/4 teaspoon of pepper; stir to combine.
Reduce the heat to low, cover and let the buckwheat simmer until the liquid is absorbed and the groats are plump but not mushy, about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat, uncover and fluff with a fork, and re-cover.
Once the water in the large pot comes to a boil, add the pasta and cook according to the package instructions until al dente. Drain and return the pasta to the pot; drizzle with the oil and toss to coat the noodles to keep the pasta from sticking together.
In a large wide saucepan or skillet over medium heat, melt the remaining 1/2 cup (4 ounces) of schmaltz. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until light golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes, adjusting the heat as needed to prevent the onions from burning (see NOTES). Add the mushrooms, season lightly with the remaining salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until the mushrooms give off most of their liquid and the onions turn darker, about 10 minutes. Taste, and season with additional salt and/or pepper, if desired. Transfer the mushroom-onion mixture to the pot with the pasta.
Add the cooked buckwheat to the pot, followed by the dill, if using, and toss to combine. Transfer to a large serving bowl, garnish with the parsley and serve right away (see NOTES).
If you observe kashrut laws, and are serving meat with the meal, opt for schmaltz, duck fat or oil — not butter — to make the dish.
To caramelize onions, continue to cook them longer, stirring occasionally to prevent burning or sticking, until they reach a desired color; it helps to push the onions into the center of the pan to prevent burning. If the pan starts to look dry, add a splash of water and stir to incorporate.
To reheat kasha varnishkes, position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat it to 325 degrees. Transfer the kasha to a 3-quart baking dish and pour 1/2 cup of chicken stock or water on top. Cover with foil or a tightfitting lid and bake for about 30 minutes. Uncover, and if the mixture looks dry, add more liquid, up to 1/2 cup. Increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees and bake for 10 to 15 minutes more, or until the noodles on the top start to crisp up and brown. Serve hot or warm. Alternatively, reheat gently in a skillet over medium-low to medium heat with a drizzle of oil until the pasta and buckwheat crisp up.
Per serving (1 1/4 cup, using vegetable oil), based on 8.
Calories: 409; Total Fat: 22 g; Saturated Fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 23 mg; Sodium: 497 mg; Carbohydrates: 49 g; Dietary Fiber: 5 g; Sugar: 5 g; Protein: 10 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
From food writer Olga Massov.
Tested by Olga Massov; email questions to email@example.com.
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