A Little Something on the Side: The Thanksgiving Edition

by Terry B on November 22, 2006

Thanksgiving is all about tradition. When Marion was growing up, kasha was one of those traditions. Recipe below.

Today I introduce a new recurring feature: A Little Something on the Side. It’s all about the dishes that play the supporting role to the star of the plate—and on occasion, steal the scene.

First, though, a word about turkey, this being the day before Thanksgiving. No, I’m not going to tell you how to roast one—a quick “roast turkey” search on Epicurious.com brought up 145 recipes, which should more than cover it for you. But I am going to weigh in on stuffing the bird versus not. We don’t. We find the bird roasts faster and more evenly inside and out if you don’t stuff it, so it stays moister. The New York Times’ Mark Bittman, in discussing this very issue in last week’s Times food section, said, “too often stuffing absorbs too much of the cooking juices and comes out a soggy, unappealing mess.” Well, if the stuffing is absorbing all those cooking juices, guess what’s giving it up.

All that said, if you already have your family traditions, DON’T MESS WITH THEM, even if they include a stuffed bird. Thanksgiving is all about tradition—mess it up and your family will be mad at you, and then you’ll hate me. So if you want to liven up your otherwise beloved traditional dinner, just introduce an interesting new side or two. Here’s one we do at our house, instead of stuffing.

To tell you about it, I’m going to honor another of our Thanksgiving traditions: I get out of the kitchen and turn it over to my wife Marion. Oh, I’ll make some mashed potatoes and maybe a salad, but otherwise it’s her show. So for today, I’m turning Blue Kitchen over to her. Thanks, sweetie.

Kasha and tradition

When I was a child, we never had turkey for Thanksgiving— we had goose, which only the morning before had been alive and awaiting my mother’s discerning eye at the Farmer’s Market in Detroit; nothing else on the table was standard American issue either, down to the Zubrowka and scented teas and napoleons that would appear at the end of the meal. It took years for the American influence to creep into our household at the holidays, inexorably changing almost every item on the menu [a shift that began, when I was 11, with the arrival of canned Ocean Spray cranberries].

Nowadays in America, a Thanksgiving dinner like that—an old-country meal that would have been familiar to my great-grandmother—is among the endangered species. Dinners that are pure reflections of a family’s ethnicity just do not happen on Thanksgiving. It is the one holiday that ritually joins together all Americans—on that day, we are all sitting at a common table, and whoever is sitting there, wherever that table may be, the centerpiece of that table will very likely be the same: a roasted turkey.

But the ethnic foods of other times haven’t left. They’ve become special occasion dishes—not degraded by the passage of time, but elevated. What was once a mere everyday staple is now a beloved adornment to a special occasion.

In our house, so it is with kasha. Back in the day, kasha would not have appeared on our holiday table. It was too ordinary—a grizzled foot soldier in my mother’s constant war against hunger. When the white linens came out, kasha sat in the kitchen.

Today, I am the family matriarch, and when I cook kasha, it is for special times. And I don’t even know why I make it so rarely, because it’s a food that is versatile, healthy and—the main reason we love it—delicious.

What it is: kasha in some circles is the generic word for porridges made from a variety of carbs—potatoes, oats, millet, for instance. The kasha I’m talking about is commonly known as buckwheat groats. You may remember that last week Terry talked about pasta as a superb starting point for so many meals, and that can also be said of kasha. It can be a side dish, a main dish, a hot dish, a cold dish. It can easily be completely vegan-friendly. You can have it as a breakfast cereal, with maple syrup or honey. Eating kasha also benefits your health. For people with certain food issues, it’s good because it is wheat- and gluten-free [it’s actually a fruit]. It’s high in fiber. It’s great for your cardiovascular system. Like flax, buckwheat kasha lowers your cholesterol, preventing it from being absorbed into the intestine and sweeping it out of your body.

What it is not: a delicate food. Kasha is a hearty meal. You know angel food cake? This is its opposite.

Most of all, it is just plain delicious. It tastes nutty, and toasty, and is able to express two ideas at once, being simultaneously fluffy and serious.

This recipe makes a modest side serving for four. It can be multiplied to feed any number—just maintain the essential proportion of one unit of kernels to two units of liquid, and please see my note below about the egg.

We prefer Wolff’s brand, which comes in sadly small, costly 13-ounce boxes [certainly a sign that this food has shifted from a dietary staple to a fancy side]. We usually use the medium granulation. It is pretty easy to find kasha at a lower price—where we live, there are plenty of markets selling vast bags of kasha imported from Russia or Eastern Europe and available for a far lower price. But Wolff’s is high in quality and it is a clean, reliable product—which, alas, cannot often be said of some of the imported brands.

Basic Kasha

1 1/2 cup liquid [water or stock, ideally unsalted]
3/4 cup buckwheat kernels
1 egg, beaten [see Kitchen Notes]
2 tsp olive oil or butter
Salt and pepper

Put the liquid [which can be water, or any stock that you prefer—my current favorite is mushroom stock] into a saucepan, cover it, and turn on the heat. Bring it to a boil.

Meanwhile, pour the kasha kernels into a dry skillet [do not add any oil or butter yet!]. Add the beaten egg and stir with a spatula until every kernel is thoroughly coated with egg. Then turn on the heat under the skillet, to medium-low. Stir the kasha, breaking up any clumps with the end of the spatula, until the kasha is dry and there are no clumps of any size—about two or three minutes. At this point there should be a pleasant toasty smell.

Add the butter or olive oil to the pan and then pour in the boiling liquid, quickly and all at once. Give the pan a quick shake to distribute the grains evenly in the liquid. Cover the pan tightly and turn the heat to low.

Go away for exactly seven minutes.

Take off the lid. A puff of steam should emerge, but if actual liquid is still visible in the pan, put the lid back on and wait another minute. Fluff the kasha with the spatula. Taste. This is the time to add salt and, if you like, a modest grinding of pepper.

Move the uncovered kasha to the oven [changing to an ovenproof pan if necessary] to bake at 350 for another 15 minutes.

This basic recipe makes a delicious side to accompany turkey, or any roast—it is just wonderful with turkey gravy. And it’s so perfect with pot roast that you will regret all the years you never had it.

Kitchen Notes

The egg plays an important role in cooking kasha. It seals and binds each uncooked kernel so that it cooks properly, keeps its shape and doesn’t turn to mush. When you omit the egg, be a little more vigilant about the cooking time. When you double this recipe, don’t double the egg. You only need enough egg to coat every kernel. I would only add another egg if I were making this for, say, ten or more.

Here are some variations for other purposes:

For vegans: Omit the egg, toasting the kasha on its own in the skillet, and make sure you are using a vegetable or mushroom stock.

If you’re in a hurry: Skip the oven roasting at the end, and serve straight from the stovetop. [Start to finish: 10 or 11 minutes.]

Nonfat: Omit the oil or butter.

For breakfast: Cook it with water or milk and a little cinnamon, and serve with maple syrup.

A one-dish vegetarian meal: When the kasha is cooked, stir in roasted cashews, flat-leaf parsley, roasted onions, and roasted sweet red peppers; top with grated cheddar cheese; and bake until the cheese is melted.

I’ve also encountered buckwheat kasha prepared as a cold salad, tossed with vinaigrette, coriander, scallions, and water chestnuts—if you try this, be very stingy with the vinaigrette; I do not have fond memories of that dish.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Norma November 22, 2006 at 11:44 am

You are so right about Thanksgiving traditions. A former co-worker of mine tried a new dressing/stuffing recipe a couple of years ago and, man, was her family ever pea owed at her. Needlesstosay, she went back to the “old” way after that fiasco.

Michael Allen November 22, 2006 at 5:59 pm

I should have read this entry after lunch! Now I’m hungry for kasha, and stuck in downtown St. Louis where I know I’ll find none. I shall remedy my craving this weekend, though — thanks for the tips.

Ronnie November 22, 2006 at 9:16 pm

Ah! Kasha. One of my favorite side-dishes. Hearty texture, full-bodied taste, and warm memories of childhood. And now thanks to Marion I understand why my egg-less attempts turned to mush. Will definitely try this recipe. Sounds so good I can smell it already!

Laura P. December 1, 2006 at 4:45 am

You can sometimes sneak in something new if you do it in addition to all the old-familiars. This year, it was caramelized brussels sprouts and chestnuts. And, despite the wrinkled noses when I said I was going to do it, everyone loved it once it was on their plates.

Here it is. (Recipe from Martha Stewart Living)

2 T unsalted butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil
2 lbs brussels sprouts, washed, trimmed and cut in bit size pieces
3/4 lb shelled chestnuts (jarred, vacuum packed or frozen)
1/2 c cider vinegar
1/4 c chicken stock (low sodium if store-bought)
1/4 c sugar

Saute brussels sprouts in butter and oil over medium heat until golden, 15-17 minutes. Add chestnuts and cook, stirring occasionally, until sprouts are tender and browned in places, 20-25 minutes.

Raise heat to medium-high. Add vinegar, stock and sugar. Cook stirring occasionally until liquid has reduced to a syrup, 4-5 minutes.

Serves 8.

Charlene February 4, 2008 at 2:51 pm

can you freeze left over kasha cooked with egg? and if so, for how long?

Thanks

Terry B February 4, 2008 at 4:08 pm

Charlene—I consulted the kasha maker in our house on this one, Marion. Here’s what she had to say:

You can freeze it, but: We haven’t tried this because when we cook kasha, we eat all of it. It may sit in the fridge for a day or two as a leftover, but then it gets devoured.

Having said that, first: Anything that contains egg [or dairy] and that is intended for freezing should be cooled down right after cooking as quickly as possible, that is, in the refrigerator [not on your kitchen counter or dining table]. Separate out any part you intend to freeze and cool it right away. Once it has cooled in the fridge, it can be transferred to the freezer. I recommend not holding it in the freezer it for more than two months. Also, it is very likely you will lose some of the nice texture–I suspect that kasha, like risotto, will become soggy after a sojourn through the freezer.

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