When I was asked to do a cooking demo on buckwheat dishes last year, I lied. “I adore cooking with buckwheat,” I said. “I’d love to do the demo.” Actually I’d almost never cooked with buckwheat. In four weeks I had to become a buckwheat ninja, an encyclopedia of buckwheat facts, the Emeril Lagasse of buckwheat “Bam!”
Buckwheat's not a grain
Luckily I learn fast, because I was way off when I started. I thought buckwheat was a grain. It’s actually a seed. Okay, I could deal with that, and it’s a good factoid to have on hand. My second mistake was thinking buckwheat came in only two forms. Actually it comes three ways: flour, raw groats, and roasted groats. Um, what’s a groat?, someone might ask in class. Merriam-Webster’s says a groat is a “hulled grain [ha! could also be a seed, guys] broken into fragments larger than grits.” A groat is a big grit? Well, I know corn grits from the South are one step coarser than cornmeal, and cornmeal comes in fine, medium, and coarse. Jeez, do I need to memorize all the gradations of meal, grits, and groats? If asked, I decided, I’ll keep it vague.
Exploring raw groats
I found the raw and roasted buckwheat groats in the bulk section of my supermarket—meaning a lot of people must be cooking with buckwheat. They were sure keeping quiet about it. And I hoped none of them would come to my class.
What do you do with a raw groat? A lot of people make breakfast porridge or they cook and serve it like rice. Those are okay, but a tiny bit boring. I wanted something out of the ordinary. I found an amazing way to use raw groats in a smoothie! You soak the groats and some nuts in water for several hours before putting them together with frozen bananas, frozen berries, dates, and water. Once you liquefy for a minute or so, the groats and nuts are completely dissolved, and you have a healthy smoothie with a luxuriously creamy texture. No yogurt, no milk, no sugar. I felt like I’d cracked open a secret cabinet of miracle ingredients.
On to roasted groats
Now that the raw buckwheat groats were a slam dunk, I moved on to the roasted groats. I knew that these roasted groats were also called kasha, because I’d had some leftover kasha in my pantry for years before I threw them out. I’d made a vegetarian version of “Kasha Varnishkes” before I went vegan. It’s an old Eastern European Jewish dish with bowtie pasta and roasted buckwheat, usually flavored with goose, duck, or chicken fat. In the vegetarian version, the dry groats were stirred up with a raw egg and toasted in a pan before adding vegetable broth to cook them. So now, no egg. Could I recreate this dish without it? I remember liking it a lot. I dug around and found a wonderful vegan version that introduces dill and mushrooms for flavoring. There’s actually no added oil, and the dish still bursts with flavor. Two for two!
It was easy to find buckwheat flour recipes (pancakes and cookies lead the pack) and dishes made with soba noodles, i.e., buckwheat noodles originally hailing from Japan. I chose a pancake recipe with no added oil and just a few mini chocolate chips for sweetness. My cabbage-soba noodle slaw, with a peanut-sesame dressing, rocked. The cookies with cocoa nibs came out sandy and delicious.
I was ready. I made the samples, packed up the demo ingredients, and drove off to my date with buckwheat destiny.
Chocolate Chip Coconut Pancakes – The coconut flakes and buckwheat flour give these pancakes a fantastic texture and flavor. The chocolate chips mean you can skip the syrup, a nice change of pace.
Have-It-Your-Way Smoothie - Soaked raw buckwheat groats and almonds form the basis of this dreamy, creamy berry smoothie. This is so worth a try.
Nibby Butter Buckwheat Cookies– Studded with cocoa nibs, these cookies have a wonderful sandy texture. They aren’t sweet, but the subtle pleasure they bring will have you reaching for them over and over.
Kasha Varnishkes – One of the attendees at my demo recalled Kasha Varnishkes as a staple at her grandmother’s house. She tried this no-added-fat, vegan version, and said, “This is exactly how it’s supposed to taste.” Woo hoo! The layers of flavors and texture in this dish work incredibly well.
Noodle-Vegetable Salad with Peanut-Sesame Dressing - The cabbage slaw and buckwheat noodles provide a super accompaniment to the peanut-sesame dressing's zing. You can taste all the subtle notes that make this a great alternative to coleslaw—fresh ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and rice vinegar.