As I was enjoying the toasty sandalwood of Serge Lutens Jeux de Peau recently, it reminded me of the burnt, caramelized notes we enjoy in food such as coffee, freshly baked bread, chocolate and pralines. These flavors oscillate between languid sweetness and smoky bitterness, yet all facets add up to an irresistible mélange. In food, as in fragrance, the judicious use of charred notes can convey a savory, mouthwatering sensation. One of my favorite ways to experience this is a simple buckwheat pilaf. Accented with the dark, piney notes of mushrooms and sweet caramelized onions, this traditional Russian dish is very satisfying. In the spring, it takes well to morels and white field mushrooms, while in the winter, it can be made with smoky and savory dried porcini.
Despite its name, buckwheat is related to neither wheat nor to cereals in general. It is a variety of Polygonaceae plants, which produce gluten-free seeds, shaped like little plump triangles. The nectar from buckwheat flowers produces honey with the dark, leathery flavor that is reminiscent of chicory coffee and bitter chocolate. Try adding a spoonful of it to a cup of black tea with lemon to see how this ambery honey creates a gourmand Shalimar effect on the palate. Until a century ago, Russia was the main producer of buckwheat, a fact reflected in the rich collection of Russian sayings. “Shi da kasha—pischa nasha” (shi [cabbage soup] and buckwheat are our food). “Khleb—batiushka, kasha—matushka” (bread is the father, buckwheat is the mother). While kasha in Russian means any type of grain porridge, buckwheat’s popularity is uncontested. In traditional Russian cuisine, buckwheat finds itself in many preparations, from simple porridges to complicated pilaf like dishes, from pie fillings to elegant yeasted crepes, from soups to desserts.
Most buckwheat sold in stores as buckwheat grains (groats) is green, and even if it is labeled as toasted, it needs to be further toasted to bring out the rich, caramel flavor of this unusual grain. Buckwheat is sold in either whole or broken groats, and both varieties can be used to make this pilaf. The preparation is fairly straightforward, with buckwheat first mixed with oil or butter and toasted in the oven and then boiled in water till it gets absorbed. While traditionally Russian cuisine relies on the heat of the wood burning oven, a slow cooker can approximate the result. Once the buckwheat is almost done, it is mixed with sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions and finished either in the oven or on the stove top.
The combination of toasty grain and the meaty, luscious mushroom-onion sauté is irresistible. Simultaneously savory and sweet, it can be used as a side dish to any rich fish or meat preparations. I sometimes use it as a filling for crepes (fill thin crepes, roll them up and bake in sour cream) and small yeasted pies. Most of the time, however, I simply serve it as a main course with a crisp salad of lettuce and cucumber dressed with lemon juice and sour cream. The classical tomato, cucumber, onion, dill and sour cream salad also works beautifully against the dark, smoky canvass of buckwheat pilaf.
Buckwheat Pilaf with Mushrooms and Caramelized Onions
If using broken groats, mix them with oil and 1 beaten egg before toasting in order to obtain a fluffy, airy pilaf. The boiled egg garnish is a traditional embellishment, but it can be omitted. Please note that you can use butter alone to make this pilaf, which undoubtedly will make for a richer (and oh, so delicious!) dish.
2 onions, sliced thinly
1lb mushrooms (cremini, brown mushrooms or any wild mushroom mix), sliced thinly
Vegetable oil, butter
salt, pepper, minced parsley
2 boiled eggs, chopped (optional)
Preheat oven to 350F. Mix buckwheat with 2-3 Tbsp of vegetable oil or butter and toast for 15-20 min. If you are using pre-toasted groats, only 10 min will suffice. Mix once or twice during the toasting process.
Meanwhile, bring 6 cups of water to boil in a heavy pot, salt it generously. Add toasted buckwheat and mix well. Bring to boil and then reduce the heat to minimum and cover the pot. Simmer till the water is absorbed (20-40min.)
Saute onions in 2 Tbsp of oil on medium heat till melted and golden. Remove to a plate. Add another Tbsp of oil and add mushrooms. Saute till they brown around the edges, give off and reabsorb their liquid. Add onions, salt, pepper and about 1-2 Tbsp of minced parsley.
Once the water has been absorbed by buckwheat groats, add the mushroom-onion mélange and the optional egg. If you were using vegetable oil for cooking, at this point, it is a nice touch to add a spoonful of butter, which will amalgamate the flavors nicely.
Fluff the groats gently with a fork, cover the pot tightly and leave on the barest flame for another 15-20min. Alternatively, the pot can be place in the 350F oven to finish cooking. If you are not planning to serve the pilaf right away, turn off the oven and leave the pot to steam gently in the dying heat until serving.
Photography © Bois de Jasmin.