When I'm Low on Pasta, This Nourishing Ingredient Swoops In

March 24, 2020
Photo by Julia Gartland. Prop Stylist Sophie Strangio. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne.

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re branching out beyond pasta.

After four days of social-distancing, I had already eaten pasta for dinner three times, a pace I would gladly keep up for the rest of this mess if I had that much pasta (I don’t) and the nearby supermarket had any in stock (it doesn’t). Perhaps you’re in a similar boat?

Fortunately, there are other fish in the sea starches in the pantry. If your kitchen is like mine, it’s full of random whole grains and seeds that you bought for this or that, then forgot about. Right now, I have rice, quinoa, bulgur, farro, wheat berries, and—not to pick favorites but—my favorite, kasha.

This word means different things depending on where you’re from or where you are. In North America (hi, hello), kasha refers to toasted buckwheat groats. But in Europe and Russia, it denotes other groats, as well as other dishes with groats, like porridges or pilafs.

Photo by Julia Gartland. Prop Stylist Sophie Strangio. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne.

Today, we’re working with the North American kasha, toasted buckwheat groats, which are grey-brown in color and super-nutty (dare I say the nuttiest?) in flavor. Like rice and quinoa, you could simply boil kasha and get along just fine. But also like rice and quinoa, which want to be rinsed first, there’s a pre-step to cooking kasha that makes all the difference:

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“Many people toss kasha with an egg before cooking, because it keeps the grains separate,” according to Mark Bittman in How to Cook Everything. (Check out an example of that egg trick here.) “But toasting it in oil accomplishes the same thing.”

Or bacon fat. Yes. I realize this is sort of scandalous, considering how beloved kasha is in Jewish cooking (have you ever made kash varn? You should), where kosher law rebuffs pork. But I grew up in a reform Jewish family that cooked bacon all the time—so this sort of combination feels comforting to me, and hopefully to you too.

Throw in some eggs and Parmesan and you end up with a carbonara look-a-like that just happens to be gluten-free. Though it’s by no means traditional to serve a fried egg on top of carbonara, we’re already way past traditional—and the eggs are out anyway—so why not? If you don’t have Parm, another salty-funky hard cheese, like Pecorino Romano, will work too.

While carbonara sauce is infamous for breaking or scrambling as it’s tossed with spaghetti, this problem—curiously, wonderfully, somewhat unexplainably—works itself out with itty-bitty buckwheat. If you ask me, it has something to do with the water left on the grains, or lack thereof.

As Cook’s Illustrated explains in its carbonara recipe, “Reducing...the amount of water typically used to boil pasta gave us a concentrated starchy liquid that we reserved for our sauce.” For kasha, you use even less cooking water, just enough for absorption.

And so the groats welcome the sauce with open arms and the sauce hugs them and then the whole dish hugs you and, for what it’s worth, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now, we’ll get through this.

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

1 Comment

Sandy March 30, 2020
Please stop recommending recipes from Cook"s Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen that require a subscription to open!