Indirectly, at least, my fondness for buckwheat can be traced to a group of Ukrainian women I encountered in Edmonton, Alberta, where I lived for a while back in the 1970s. In the summer, the women trucked a lush array of summer vegetables to the farmer’s market. But by January, the long row of well-kept stalls I’d come to depend on for food held little except fresh eggs, spent hens (excellent for soup), heaps of potatoes and endless quart jars of a strange, almost black, honey. The honey was unusually complex in flavor, rich yet without cloying sweetness. Intrigued, I asked where it came from and was told, in a combination of halting English and sign language, about fields of white buckwheat blossoms that bloomed in summer in the fields outside of town.
Buckwheat, I learned, is not only irresistible to honeybees, it is also the key ingredient in many recipes brought to the New World by immigrants from eastern Europe. I quickly became partial to that dark honey as well as thick and crunchy buckwheat toast and other buckwheat staples, such as pancakes and hearty muffins.
Buckwheat looks like a grain but it is actually a fruit that is related to rhubarb and sorrel.
Though buckwheat looks like a grain and is commonly called one, it is actually a fruit. A member of the genus Fagopyrum, it is a broad-leaved plant, related to rhubarb and sorrel. Its flowers are followed by short trusses of tiny, three-sided, hard-shelled fruits, which look a little like miniature beechnuts. In fact, the plant’s name was derived from the Middle Dutch boecweit, which means “beech wheat.”
Thriving where it is cold and damp, in rocky areas of poor soil, and endowed with the constitution of bind-weed (to which it is also related), buckwheat is so tough that neither pesticides nor herbicides are ordinarily used in its cultivation. Buckwheat is known as a “smother crop,” growing so densely that weeds are choked out, and soils can be improved by plowing its lush foliage under as a green manure.
Once the dark brown hulls have been removed, the fruits of buckwheat are sold either unroasted as whole white groats or roasted as kasha, a Russian word meaning a side dish of grain. To my taste, the unroasted groats have a pasty, washed-out flavor, but kasha’s flavor is so aggressive that it should be regarded as part of an advanced class for cooks. When the groats are roasted in ovens fired to temperatures exceeding 500o, their character is transformed, and they acquire a smoky, almost meaty, flavor. Those tasting kasha for the first time, however, are often dismayed by its bitter—even scorched—taste. “I’ve always thought it tastes like the smell of old black telephones,” says one vegetarian who waxes enthusiastic over most grains.
Roasted or unroasted, buckwheat groats are powerfully nourishing, offering one of the most complete protein of all plants, lots of dietary fiber and a surprising amount of calcium. Once eaten mainly by frugal farmers, buckwheat has been gaining in popularity, with the market increasing at the rate of 3–4 percent a year. And because the groats are more slowly digested than other carbohydrates, they are a filling starch, a dish to serve when the temperature drops below zero.
While it may help to have eastern European genes to appreciate kasha, buckwheat flour—made of the unroasted groats with a portion of the hulls ground in—has a pleasing, nut-like flavor. Used alone or in combination with white flour, it is a traditional favorite for pancakes, producing delicate but distinctly flavored cakes that are light-textured but resilient enough to be rolled around a filling.
Americans have largely confined buckwheat to breakfast griddle cakes, made from a sourdough starter that recalls pioneer days. Other cultures consider it more of a staple. In Acadia country, in Maritime Canada and in northern Maine, buckwheat cakes called ployes (rhymes with boys) are eaten as bread with every meal as a sort of northern tortilla. In Brittany, crisp-edged, lacy buckwheat crêpes are rolled around jam or creamed spinach for snacks.
The most sophisticated members of the pancake tribe are Russian blini, which are usually leavened with yeast, enriched with egg yolks and butter, then further lightened with the beaten egg whites. Blini are an important part of the Russian version of Mardi Gras, celebrated in February, when they are wrapped around caviar, smoked salmon or whitefish, or simply served with sour cream and melted butter.
Besides pancakes, the most popular use of buckwheat flour is in noodles.
Beside pancakes, the most popular use of buckwheat flour is in noodles. In fact, 90 percent of the U.S. buckwheat crop is exported to Japan, where eggless buckwheat noodles, called soba, are a national passion. Soba are often served in hot soup or cold with nori (seaweed), scallions and a soy-based dipping sauce
Buckwheat flour can be “light” or “dark,” depending on the hull content. Though the packages don’t usually specify, commercial buckwheat flour contains medium amounts of hull, making it distinctive but not overpowering. (If you buy your flour at a health food store that grinds flour fresh, be sure it is ground from the unroasted groats.)
In yeast breads, buckwheat flour must be mixed with plenty of wheat flour because it contains no gluten, the elastic protein that enables bread to rise. A ratio of no more than one part buckwheat flour to four parts wheat flour will prevent the leaden texture that helped give health food a bad name. Since pancakes, quick breads and muffins contain a higher proportion of leavening in the form of baking powder and eggs, they can carry more buckwheat. Buckwheat flour has a somewhat sandy quality that disappears when it is mixed with liquid and made into breads, but it is noticeable in cookies and pie crusts. Keep in mind that all baked goods made solely with buckwheat will be gray rather than golden, since buckwheat, unlike wheat flour, has almost none of the natural sugar that enhances browning. Adding sweetener in the form of sugar, honey or maple syrup will produce a toasty look.
Although kasha, like buckwheat pancakes, can be prepared with sophisticated ingredients, it is essentially peasant food—hearty and flavorful. Whole or coarsely ground, it is prepared in much the same manner as rice, using two cups of water or stock for every cup of groats. Because the cooked grains have a tendency to stick together, most recipes call for mixing the uncooked kasha with beaten egg (egg white can also be used) and sautéing the mixture until it is dry before cooking it in the liquid. The albumin in the egg seals the surface of the kernels so they remain separate. In the buckwheat belt that stretches from the Balkans across Russia, kasha turns up in every recipe that might otherwise feature rice, bulgur or noodles. It is an ideal gravy mop and with the savory additions of herbs and mushrooms, it can be used in place of meat.
With buckwheat, I’ve discovered, it’s best to follow the lead of my Ukrainian mentors and meet the robust flavor head on, with plenty of onions and garlic—and a farmer’s appetite.