Eastern European

My Grandma’s Second Husband’s Favorite Pasta

March 16, 2018

I call it kash varn, short for kasha varnishkes, my grandma’s second husband’s favorite pasta. Kasha is buckwheat groats—roasted, not raw—a Baywatch-tan version of their sea-foamy former selves. Cook those, toss with bow-tie noodles and, the best part, lots of caramelized onions. At its most traditional, kash varn needs no more than that. But in my family, we can’t help but gild the lily—with mushrooms and parsley—two additions you’ll find in a lot of places, but not everywhere.

“Why don’t some people add mushrooms?” I wondered to my grandma, the kash varn queen, as I was boiling buckwheat. She was drinking her vodka on the rocks—in a wineglass, always in a wineglass—splash of water, bit of brine, many olives. It was dark outside and the kitchen smelled like chestnuts. She shrugged: “They’re purists.”

What could be better than bow ties and buckwheat? Photo by Rocky Luten

Which, apparently, we are not. Years before this, I had another kash varn moment with my grandma: She smiled, I remember, shut her eyes, and said, “Bob loved this.” Really? “Loved.” Bob is a man I never met, but might as well have. He died a few months after my brother was born, a few years before I was. I’ve heard about him, in patches and threads, like piecing together a quilt, my whole life.

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I know that Bob was exceedingly warm, but also that he enforced a strict, must-wear-shoes policy at the dinner table. I know that he had a big laugh—I saw it once, on a videotape—and that he made everyone else laugh. I know that his favorite chair was the one now in the corner of my parents’ living room. I know that he wasn’t my mom’s father, but her dad, and that those two can be separate while also the same. And I know that he was the love of my grandma’s life. He adored her. And kash varn.

If my family’s rendition is untraditional, my own is even less so—streamlined in places, stretched in others—not the version that Bob was used to, but one that he would love, at least I hope, all the same. Here’s what I did:

  • Extra-virgin olive oil instead of schmaltz. Because it’s what I always have on hand. Of course, if chicken fat just happens to be nearby, yes please. You could do butter, too, or some combination of the three.
  • A new way to kasha. Kash varn recipes often coat the buckwheat in beaten egg or egg white, to encourage separation and fluff, then cook 1 part grains to 2 parts water, much like rice. I wanted to streamline this—also, produce more consistent results. Sometimes the absorption method worked for me. Other times, mushy gloop. Martha Rose Shulman talked about her own similarly “tenuous relationship” with kasha for the New York Times. Her solution: cracked buckwheat, almost like bulgur (the only catch, this is tougher to find). My solution: boiling the grains in a large volume of salty water, like pasta. Healthyish cookbook author Lindsay Maitland Hunt wrote all about this game-changing technique for us just a couple months ago. It works wonders here.
  • Roast those mushrooms. If we’re caramelizing the onions on the stove, why not just add the mushrooms to that pan? A couple thoughts: If we’re caramelizing the onions, then sautéing the mushrooms, all in the same pan, that’ll take longer. We also don’t want to crowd the mushrooms. By roasting, these two components can work simultaneously. Plus, the mushrooms can spread out and do their thing, becoming deeply browned and flavorful.
  • Add salty, starchy pasta water at the end. This Italian pasta trick is especially welcome here, where there isn’t much else going on besides your chosen fat. The pasta water helps create a pseudo-sauce, for the noodles and kasha and onions and mushrooms to drink up, then have a good time. You will, too.

Have you tried kasha varnishkes before? Let us know what it was like in the comments!

4 Comments

btglenn March 22, 2018
I learned to make kasha from my mother who learned from her mother who cooked them first in her Russian kitchen. I always use whole granulation kasha because I like the bite, (as my mother did) but others may prefer medium granulation, and roast with egg, because otherwise it always comes out mushy. Roasting is under low oven heat or low heat on the stovetop, depending on my mood at the time. I separate the groats several times so that they will not stick together. While the groats are drying I bring water or chicken broth to a boil and separately saute sliced onions in a mix of butter and olive oil though my mom did hers in chicken fat. When the onions start to color I add sliced mushrooms.. When the buckwheat groats are dry I bring the pot to the top of the stove and pour the boiling broth over them, and let cook until soft. The varnishes can be cooked while this is going on, or earlier and set aside, whatever is convenient. Once the kasha is cooked I mix in the varnishes and carmelized onions and mushrooms and add more butter to taste. It is fabulous.
 
Judithconroy March 22, 2018
My grandma never made this, but I do! I’ve made it for years and years by the old method and never had any problems with consistency. Adding mushrooms enhances the flavor. Use them!<br /><br />Kasha varnishkas is addictive. Once you begin eating, you can’t stop. It’s a very satisfying, homey dish.
 
[email protected] March 22, 2018
My Grandmother made this too and I loved it as a kid. I still do. She used the egg method and I have successfully continued it. I will try making it without an egg because I have friends who don’t eat eggs. My grandmother mixed The whole kasha with a beaten egg, let it dry and then toasted it in a big frying pan to really dry it out before adding water. We were purists, no mushrooms and yes chicken fat.
 
HalfPint March 16, 2018
Oh gosh, the story of Bob and Grandma was so sweet. I don't know why I'm so teary-eyed right now...