Kasha Varnishkes/קאשה וורנישקס (כוסמת עם אטריות)/קאשע ווארנישקעס
каша варнишки/Kasha Varnishkas/Kasha Varnishka
Mmm. Childhood food. I don’t think anyone ever acquires a taste for kasha varnishkes as an adult; for the dish to be truly appreciated, the earthiness of the kasha and the fleeting sweetness of the caramelized onions have to be augmented by recollection, by the sense memories of your grandmother’s kitchen as experienced from your below-the-countertop vantage point. Eating kasha varnishkes without ever having had an Eastern European Jewish grandmother is like eating hummus without tehina.
Kasha varnishkes is a heavyweight of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine in America, familiar to probably every American Ashkenazi with roots in Eastern Europe. I grew up eating it in my Baba Larisa’s little apartment, where it was usually followed by her airy, moist apple cake, but until not so long ago, I was under the impression that it was a Russian dish. My mother’s parents, from the Austro-Hungarian/Romanian/Ukrainian/Romanian/Ukrainian/Russian/Ukrainian city Chernivtsi (isn’t 20th century European history fun?), had their Jewishness, or at least their willingness to talk much about it, effectively beaten out of them by the lightning jab and cross of the Nazis and the Communists, which is why it took me so long to realize that many of the foods I had grown up identifying as Russian, kasha varnishkes among them, were actually Ashkenazi Jewish.
Kasha is the Slavic word for any kind of cereal porridge, a basic staple of Eastern European cuisine – but in Yiddish, which adopted the word from the Slavic languages, and in English, which adopted the word from Yiddish, it refers pretty much exclusively to buckwheat groats. The etymology of varnishkes is murkier. It means “bow-tie noodles,” but it appears (to my knowledge) only in the context of this dish. It’s a Yiddish word, at least in structure and phonology, but the Yiddish word for “noodles” is the unrelated lokshn. Obvious cognates don’t appear in the main source languages of Eastern Yiddish (medieval German, classical Hebrew, and the surrounding Slavic tongues). The Italians, who probably invented bow-tie noodles, call them farfalle (butterflies), so much as in World War I, they’re little help. I couldn’t even find a consensus on how to spell varnishkes in Yiddish. I was beginning to think, after much research (even, vey is mir, reading Yiddish newsgroups), that like General Tso, tikka masala, and the global success of Domino’s, varnishkes would have to be consigned to the great realm of culinary mystery. But then I asked my mother, who knows everything.
“It’s from vareniki,” she said. I was skeptical. Filled dumplings seemed a fairly far cry from bowtie noodles and kasha. But then she started making sense: she explained that “varnishkes” was a Yiddish corruption of “варенички” (varenichki), the diminutive of vareniki, and that the dish arose as a quick and easy version of those significantly more arduous stuffed pasta dumplings. Those lazy Jews. It makes sense; varnishkes sounds pretty damned close to varenichki. Reigning lady of Jewish cooking Joan Nathan mentions a kasha varnishkes recipe dating back to 1925 that was “basically a kreplach-type noodle stuffed with kasha, buckwheat groats, and gribenes” – which implies that, at some point in its history, kasha varnishkes was literally kasha vareniki, that is, noodle dumplings stuffed with kasha. So there you have it: a mystery even the Internet had no answer for, solved in thirty seconds by my mother. And they give Joan Nathan the million-dollar ethnic cookbook deals. Feh.
But for now, less inherent unfairness of life, more kasha varnishkes recipe. Read on:
- 1 cup whole kasha
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 large onion, chopped fine
- 8 oz. bowtie noodles (that is, half a standard 16 oz. package)
- 2 cups water (or stock)
- 3 – 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 teaspoon salt
Makes enough for a few people as a main course or a few more beyond that as a side dish. The recipe doubles easily.
A few notes on the ingredients:
KASHA: Whole grain kasha, people. Medium grain, coarse grain, small grain, that shit’s for Cossacks. Only whole grain kasha will give you Jewish strength, the kind of strength that allows you to survive millennia of oppression, garnering enough esoteric booklearning to one day break free of your chains and invent the atomic bomb. No, go ahead, call us weak. We have the bomb. What do you have, medium grain kasha?
To clear up any confusion, whole grain kasha looks like this:
NOODLES: Bowties are traditional, but a noodle is a noodle is a noodle. I personally wouldn’t use any 3-D noodles, like penne, or anything long and thin, because that’s just bizarre, but hey, I’m a traditionalist.
BUTTER: Traditionally, kasha varnishkes would call for schmaltz, but as my mother explained to me with a certain wistfulness, you can’t get real, yellow chicken fat out of American grocery store Frankenchickens. You may be able to score some from your butcher if you have one, but if you don’t, use butter. Butter, goddammit. Margarine or 70% hydrogenated oil spread what-the-fuck isn’t food. Remember those commercials the Butter Lobby (ahhhh, America) put on in the early ’90s wherein groups of rosy-cheeked Protestants encountered butter in various settings, invariably responding, “Mmmm, butter!”; all culminating in a proud mother laying before her family an enormous plastic turkey while the announcer cheerily intoned, “When cooking your best, nothing tastes quite like butter”? They weren’t lying. Can’t believe it’s not butter? I sure as fuck can.
If you’re doing kasha varnishkes up kosher-like and you want to serve it as part of a meat meal, I would recommend tracking down some schmaltz. Anything but kosher non-dairy margarine.
1) Separate the eggs. Beat the yolks. The whites you don’t need. Do what you will with them. Scramble them and feel, for a brief and terrible moment, like a health person. Or add sugar and whip them into meringue and bake that up nice. Or just pour them onto the ground in honor of your boys who got taken out by cholesterol. Up to you.
2) Heat on high a large skillet. Once it’s good and hot, toss in your kasha.
Stir constantly so the kasha doesn’t burn. You want to toast it for between two and five minutes, until it darkens a bit and yields its delicious kasha smell.
3) Pour the kasha from the skillet into a bowl.
4) In a pot, bring the aforementioned 2 cups of water (or stock) and 1 tsp salt to a boil.
5) Pour your beaten egg yolks into the bowl of toasted kasha and start stirring quickly and vigorously. You want each kasha grain to receive an egg coating, and you don’t want the yolk to set and create little clumps of kasha.
6) Heat up a large pot or dutch oven. Once it’s hot, add the kasha and toast it a minute or two more. Then pour in the boiling water from step four. Cover and reduce heat to low. Cook until the kasha absorbs all the water and gets all tender-like, about ten minutes. It should look like so:
If for some reason the kasha becomes tender without absorbing all the water, pour out the excess. Either way, once the kasha is done, remove the pot from heat and leave covered.
7) While all that business is going on, heat up a healthy splash of oil in a skillet. Toss in your onions…
…and cook them until they’re browned and getting crispy:
8) Start preheating your oven to 400°.
9) Boil a pot of salted water to cook the noodles. Once it’s boiling, throw in the noodles and cook ’em until they’re nice and al dente. Drain.
10) Remove the lid from your pot o’ kasha and stir in the onions and noodles. Try a bit. If it needs more salt, add some. Cut up your butter into small chunks and distribute them more or less evenly over the top of the kasha varnishkes.
Cover the pot again and move it into the oven. Bake for 10 minutes. If your pot isn’t oven-safe for some strange reason, you can do this in a casserole dish or a baking pan covered with foil.
11) Remove the pot from the oven. Stir well. Eat. It shouldn’t need any gravy. Well-made kasha varnishkes speaks for itself – and I know this is a solid recipe, because it tastes like being six all over again. But I’ll let you in on a strange and terrible secret: if you’re looking for some unprecedented fusion cuisine, kasha varnishkes goes surprisingly well with Sriracha. It shouldn’t make sense, but somehow, it does.
Now I just need to figure out how to make that damned apple cake…