Posts Tagged ‘buckwheat’

Saccharomyces and me: a love story

Buckwheat Grissini

Buckwheat Grissini

There are times when cooking seems like a chore: when you’re tired, impatient, or just have other things on your mind. There are times when cooking seems like, well, cooking, a loving exercise in the care and feeding of yourself or your family. Then there are the times (and I think these are my favorite times) when cooking feels like an arts and crafts project. Baking, frosting, and decorating a birthday cake is really just a big arts and crafts project. Cookies and even the humble Rice Krispies Treats fall under that category too.

The exacting and repetitive nature of a lot of baking can turn people off. They don’t want to feel restricted by a recipe. They don’t want to feel restricted by decorating the same cookie in the same way dozens of times.

I don’t really consider myself a touchy-feely-tactile person. I don’t like slimy things, in fact, I won’t even wear my metal wrist-watch during the hot weather because it gets sticky from my perspiration. (The latter always makes me think of Grace Kelly’s heiress character in “To Catch a Thief” explaining why she doesn’t wear jewelry: “I don’t like cold things against my skin.” This was a Hitchcock movie, so the line is imbued with multiple meanings.)

Yet, give me some bread dough, and I’ll squish it and stretch it and slap it and roll it around like a little kid making mud pies. Any baker feels connected to the living, breathing organisms that bloat and puff a pile of flour and water. Every Sunday night as I make my pizza I often think that master potters have nothing on me; they’re working with a lump of clay. I’m working with millions of little yeasties, all seemingly holding their breaths at the same time so that when I bite into the crust it will be crunchy and chewy, tender enough to yield to my delicate middle-aged teeth, yet, up to the job of holding all that sauce and cheese. When the bell rings and I open the oven door for bread—or any yeasty treat—I always feel the tingle of a little miracle. Every time the timer rings a yeast cell gets it wings. They gave their lives for my slice of pie.

This past weekend I found myself in need of a little treat and a little soothing arts and crafts. I was craving savory, so I settled on Grissini. For a while back in the ‘90s any restaurant worth its salt greeted you with a stalk of home-baked grissini—usually with a mashup  of complex flavors. So while this project may seem as dated as a plate of blackened catfish, I contend that for the home baker in need of occupational therapy, baking grissini can be a soothing task.

My baking-geek passion of late has been experimenting with alternative grains. What I find interesting is that variation of flavors and texture these can lend to my yeasty treats. If 2012 was the year of spelt (which has now found a place in my weekly pizza), then 2013 has started off as the year of buckwheat.

I need to backpedal a bit here. Buckwheat is not actually a grain, it is the seed of an herbal plant. But that’s splitting hairs: do you care that the tomato is actually a fruit? No? Then you won’t care if buckwheat isn’t wheat.

I have a bag of buckwheat flour sitting in my fridge, the remnants of a blini and smoked salmon New Year’s Eve adventure. I’ve been eating buckwheat my entire life, perhaps because of my Russian-Jewish background. A bowl of Kasha Varnishkes (buckwheat with bow tie noodles) was never far away if there was a roasted chicken for dinner. My Pop enjoyed Aunt Jemima Buckwheat pancakes as a weekend treat (I don’t think Aunt Jemima makes the stuff anymore), and as an adult I have come to prize Buckwheat for its healthy dose of vegetable protein without the frou-frou of fat. Oh yeah: it tastes good too, kind of like a lighter, more moist version of cooked bulgur wheat.

So, while pulling the bag of type “00” flour I needed to bake the grissini, I spied the bag of buckwheat flour and thought, “Hmph, why not?”

A quarter cup of the flour replaced an equal amount of the white flour, but went a very long way towards darkening the dough. I was cautious as buckwheat lacks the gluten that the yeasties need to puff the dough.

The arts and crafts portion of the program involved the actual rolling of the little ropes. Too much flour on the board and you don’t get enough traction to roll them into ropes, too little and they stick and squish to the board. A little flour dusted on my hands then patted on each portion of dough was just the touch needed. The actual shape is very forgiving, as lumpy and bumpy are the order of the day as long as you make them somewhat uniform in length.

I went old school with flavorings relying on poppy seeds, sesame seeds, garlic powder, and sea salt. Happily, they bake with relative speed—about 15 minutes, but sadly, if you’re not careful they’ll disappear even faster.

They can be a bit addictive.


Click here for the Buckwheat Grissini recipe

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Not Our Gang



When I was a kid, we always joked that you could tell the best Chinese restaurant in town by how many of “us” ate there.

Indeed, there were nights at Dave Wong’s China Sails that there were enough of “us” munching on Moo Goo Gai Pan to exceed the number needed for a temple quorum ten times over.

Am I teetering on the brink of the politically incorrect?

Yes, “we” love our own food too – although for the most part we save it for special occasions like Jewish holidays.  But truth be told, much of it originated as peasant food, was usually made with fairly unhealthy ingredients, and lacked…shall we say, complexity of flavors. I think that is why “we” became such rabid fans of other folks’ food.

This discussion will likely bring some stern words of disagreement my way, but to paraphrase an old borscht-belt joke, look around: Do you see one Jewish restaurant?

Yes, there are millions of delis, but nowadays those are only nominally Jewish, and as much as I love Hot Pastrami you’ll have a hard time convincing me of its merits as healthy food.

My Grandmother had a very old, very grand looking brass samovar which used to fascinate me because it was engraved with Russian words and images of the Czar. She never served anything from the samovar, but she did show me how they used to keep the borscht hot by loading a tube inside with hot coals. In her house the samovar was the only thing – besides her – that came from the “old country.” She didn’t speak with an accent, but the samovar did.

Like most immigrants of her era, she embraced all things American – she and my grandfather even spent their honeymoon in Washington, D.C.

As time brings “us” further and further away from our Eastern European roots, the definition of Jewish food becomes more watered-down than my Grandmother’s chicken soup. Pure Jewish food, when you can find it, doesn’t resemble the stuff served to me as a kid. I can’t remember the last time I had a Knish of the type they used to serve when I was a kid: tiny, crusty, and filled with mystery. (Unfortunately the mystery was about the filling, as in, “What the heck is this stuff?” That didn’t stop me from inhaling them.)

I’ve had a few requests for a Noodle Pudding recipe, but I have found that cooking Noodle Pudding (a/k/a Kugel) generally entails choices that are no more troublesome than asking, “Raisins? No raisins? Raisins in half the pan?”

Again, not very complex, and probably shouldn’t be. It is home cooking – comfort food – and needs to hew closely to an ideal well formed in peoples’ minds. When Passover rolls around I’ll probably fiddle around with Noodle Kugel, but if I stray too far afield from people’s expectations I’ll have to name it something else. Our assimilated tastes cause us to change these recipes to fit our surroundings, not unlike the way a little girl born in a rural Russian village was changed and became my city-dwelling-American-as-apple-pie Grandmother.

It’s January. It’s cold. As I wrote recently, this is my time of year to detox and deblobify. I am determined to do this as painlessly as possible, and that’s why healthy food, well cooked, is essential. I have been snooping around for healthy things to eat that will give me the fuel to stay warm during this cold winter. Hopefully it will also take my mind off the cookies and the bars of chocolate that are screaming for me to rescue them from the evil clutches of the grocery store.

So it was that I cracked open a box of kasha – cracked buckwheat– that has been sitting on my shelf so long that I forgot how it got there. This is what made me think about my Grandmother and Jewish food in general, but it was actually my Mom who used to serve Kasha Varnishkes, or cracked buckwheat mixed with bow tie noodles. The Kasha Varnishkes of my youth was that magically delicious blend of salty and greasy, hallmarks of really good soul food.

But the basic ingredient, buckwheat, is so healthy that I figured it was worth a try to see if I could recreate the flavor I remember while keeping it on my list of virtuous foods for my January cleanse. Happily, kasha is relatively obscure, so I am free to do whatever I want to it without going against anyone’s preconceived notions.

I used the Kasha Pilaf recipe on the box and added a dose of sautéed garlic then merely substituted olive oil for butter and low sodium chicken stock for water. Making Kasha Varnishkes was as simple as throwing cooked bow ties into the kasha. Because I am trying to be “good” just a few bowties were all I needed.

But what struck me was the texture and flavor of the kasha itself. Due to the mix of the kasha’s toasty graininess and my use of chicken stock, it had a gratifyingly meaty flavor. I immediately imagined it mixed with a liberal quantity of lightly toasted pine nuts and a sprinkling of currants as a really delicious filling for Stuffed Peppers. How about a cold salad of farro and kasha? I may even try to make those little Knishes of my youth with a kasha stuffing. Too bad I’ll have to save the knishes for later in the year when I’m not being as virtuous.

The bonus is that buckwheat is being touted in nutrition circles for bringing more than just a pretty face to the party. It is high in protein and fiber, it is gluten-free, and there are theories out there that it may even lower cholesterol and reinforce capillary walls.

Now I really feel virtuous!


Click here for the recipe for Kasha.


Saveur CoverThe kind folks at Saveur Magazine found my August 31st, 2009 posting about Ines Rosales Sweet Olive Oil Tortas and asked me to distill it for inclusion in their readers’ 2010 Top 100 list. You’ll find it in the Jan / Feb 2010 issue of the magazine, now on newsstands everywhere. Take a look and let me know what you think!


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