Nan Can Cook 001: May Day

From 2006 – 2008, I wrote about food for the Ann Arbor News. Frankly, I miss it. So welcome to Nan Can Cook, where, at least biweekly, I’ll talk you through some kind of culinary – um – thing. It’s May Day, and once we would have proudly marched under the banner of Lenin. What better day to eat kasha?

The story I did on buckwheat (yes, Eddie Murphy is mentioned) for the News can be read here for some basic definition and background on the the grain from which kasha is made. Keep in mind that in Russia, kasha isn’t necessarily buckwheat; it simply means porridge. It’s also so central to the culture that there are easily a dozen proverbs about it, including, “You couldn’t cook kasha with him/her”, kind of the obverse equivalent of “I wouldn’t kick him/her out of bed for eating crackers.” (My Russophile daughter, by the way, informs me that Russia does indeed have the some of the craziest idioms, including the insult, “Don’t eat that soup, the cook just washed his legs in it.” Why this qualifies as an insult and not Very Good Advice Indeed has always mystified me, but I choose not to challenge the child lest she become contrary. She’s an Aries.)

The Russophilia does come naturally to the kid. I’ve always been drawn to that monstrous country with its onion domes and language that makes the speakers sound as if they’re chewing on tar. My paternal grandfather was born there, somewhere on the Volga in communities settled by Germans enticed up there by Catherine the Great, who wanted her peeps nearby. Apparently, that wasn’t such a great gig. For one thing, the Germans never really assimilated, insisting even after living there for over a century that they weren’t Russians, pointing to the fact that they refused to tuck their pants in their boots as Exhibit A. I have a photo of my great-grandfather serving his time in the army, and sure enough, his pants hang long even though his commanding officer’s are tucked. For another, there’s the fact that the family came here, apparently buried under hay all the way from their village to St. Petersburg. Steerage probably felt pretty luxurious after that.

Nonetheless, Russia’s always been irresistible to me. It’s got great fairy tales, all the best ballets, Tchaikovsky and Borodin, Fabergé eggs, a doomed imperial family, Chekhov (the playwright, not the Star Trek guy so much), and this crazy bread that bubbles out over the top of a coffee can, gets studded with candied fruit, and served up at Epiphany. If you’re interested in Russian cuisine, you cannot do better than the marvelous book Please to the Table, written on the eve of the union’s dissolution and an encyclopedic survey of food that bridges two continents and over a dozen regional cuisines.

As to my dilemma on what to eat for lunch, I noticed an errant box of kasha in the pantry the other day, and since it’s been gloomy in Michigan, thought it would be tasty and comfy. I threw it in the rice cooker; I really love that thing and use it to cook pretty much every grain b/c it’s completely hands off and things come out nicely fluffy. Note, however, that standard practice is to beat an egg in a bowl, toss the uncooked kasha in it, then sauté lightly before cooking on the stove. Buckwheat’s a flower and therefore more delicate than a typical grain, and the egg dip helps the kasha keep its shape a little better. As it was, I added a scootch too much water and the kasha wasn’t as toothy as I would have liked, but it still turned out fine for my purposes.

Bert Greene, my favorite food writer, had a recipe in The Grains Book that tossed the kasha in a mustardy dressing with radishes. One vegetable, particularly one that I’m not that crazy about, wasn’t nearly enough. What else to add? One quintessentially Russian ingredient is mushrooms, but I didn’t have any. Still, I wanted the meal to feel that, maybe at some point, some Russian might have come up with it based on the kinds of things that will grow in a very cold and inhospitable environment. I happened to have a lot of sturdy, earthy, crunchy things on hand that would hold up nicely and look pretty. I’ve grown quite fond of raw kale, and have lately been consuming a fair amount. Additionally, I had carrots, fresh parsley, and red cabbage, respectively grated, chopped, and julienned.

As for the radishes, as noted above, I’m not wild about them, but I did just get this nifty Joyce Chen slicer that shaves them into long, spiral noodles. So I get the nice radish texture and bite without it being too over the top. And doesn’t it look cool?

So here’s the recipe. I fried up a couple of eggs to go with it, a nice humble counterpart. Happy May Day, everyone. Toss back a little vodka if you like. Just be sure the cook didn’t wash his legs in it.

Kasha and Raw Veggie Salad

Vinaigrette: Mince a garlic clove, salt it, and then pour the juice of a fresh lemon on top of it. Crumble in some thyme, oregano, and sage. Whisk in about a tablespoon or so of Dijon mustard. Add approximately 2 – 3 tablespoons of oil. I used a mix of olive and grapeseed, but walnut would have been nice, too.

For the salad, get about a cup of cooked kasha; see above for how to cook or just boil it on the stove top in a 1 to 2 ratio of kasha and water or broth. Meanwhile, chop about 4 kale leaves, julienne about 1/8 of a head of red cabbage, grate a carrot, and julienne or spiral cut 2 radishes. Finely chop around 3 or 4 tablespoons of italian parsley. Toss everything thoroughly in the vinaigrette; the kasha should be room temp or cooler. The salad can sit up to 24 hours.

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