One of my favorite foods growing up was kashe varnishkes, an Eastern European Jewish side dish full of carbs and mushrooms. As a child, I enjoyed nothing more than a bowl of steaming, sticky white rice, a slice of crusty bread or challah, or a bowl of pasta, hot or cold, with olive oil and salt. I was, and still am, enthralled by the texture, flavor, and the soulful satisfying nature of carbs.
Kashe varnishkes, however, stands apart. A combination of pasta, buckwheat, and mushrooms, kashe varnishkes is the Eastern European answer to Egyptian kushari and Yemeni majadra. The unique pleasure of Kashe varnishkes lies in its combination of nutty, tender buckwheat kernels, with earthy, juicy mushrooms, along with al dente pasta. Kashe varnishkes is pleasantly toothsome, yet very warming on a cold night.
Kashe varnishkes is one of the few dishes that my mother learned to cook from her Eastern European mother. Back in pre-WWII Europe, my great-grandmother enforced the rule that the kitchen was no place for children. Consequently, my grandmother didn’t learn much in the way of cooking, and my mother was often shooed from her mother’s little kitchen in Israel. Kashe varnishkes was one of the few dishes that survived the broken chain of culinary tradition, along with gorgul morgul—a peculiar yet tasty concoction made of egg yolk, lemon juice, and honey—which was meant to soothe a sore throat.
My mother would prepare kashe varnishkes as a treat for a Friday night Sabbath dinner, perhaps with chicken and salad or broccoli. I loved the steaming kernels of toasted buckwheat as much as I loved the big, chewy pasta bowties that poked through the mound of grain. The mushrooms were little buried treasures that exploded with earthy flavor in my mouth.
On Saturday afternoons when everyone napped, I would tiptoe to the refrigerator and fix myself a bowl of leftover kashe varnishkes. They were cold, and I couldn’t reheat them on the Sabbath, but I didn’t care. I would correct the seasoning with salt and perhaps a little pepper. Satisfied, I would take the bowl and a soup spoon and go to the living room, where I would choose an interesting book from my father’s extensive library. Maybe Jonathan Swift, or Dickens, perhaps Aldous Huxley. I’d climb into the big leather Eames chair and cross my legs Indian style. I’d pick up the book and cradle the bowl in my lap. As I disappeared into the universe of my book, I’d dig in my spoon and take a big, luscious bite.
150-200 gr pasta, preferably bowtie (I used fettuccine, which I broke into large-ish bite-size pieces)
3/4 c buckwheat, toasted
1/3 lb mushrooms (I used shitakes and chanterelles)
salt and pepper to taste
- Cook the pasta as you usually would, rinse it to stop it from cooking.
- In a large skillet, melt a little butter and fry the buckwheat until fragrant.
- Add one cup of water to the buckwheat and bring to a boil. Then lower to a simmer and cover.
- Meanwile, slice the mushrooms and fry them in a skillet with butter.
- Season the mushrooms to taste with salt and pepper.
- After a few minutes of simmering, check to see whether the buckwheat needs more water. If it looks dry and isn’t yet tender, add a little more water. You want to add just enough water to keep the buckwheat from drying out. The goal here is tender, yet slightly firm buckwheat, as opposed to buckwheat mush. Towards the end of cooking, remove the cover so that excess liquid evaporates. If a little buckwheat sticks to the pan, do not scrape it up.
- Season the buckwheat with salt and pepper to taste, bearing in mind that you’ve already seasoned the mushrooms.
- Combine the pasta, mushrooms, and buckwheat and correct seasoning. Serve at room temperature or briefly reheat in a pan.