Buckwheat and Mushroom Pilaf Recipe : Toasty, Savory Notes

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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.

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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.

Ingredients
Serves 4-6

2c buckwheat
6c water
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)

Instructions

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.

Enjoy!

Photography © Bois de Jasmin.

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34 Comments

  • columbine: what an original recipe, i will try it.
    the sweet irony is that you use this as a filling for crêpe when in France, crêpes from Brittany are made from buckwheat flour 🙂 May 11, 2011 at 5:24am Reply

  • Victoria: In Russia, a popular type of crepes are made with buckwheat flour too. They are different from you find in Brittany, as the Russian buckwheat crepes (bliny) are made with a yeasted dough, which gives a lacy, airy crepe.
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile May 11, 2011 at 8:31am Reply

  • Katherine: This is a wonderful and healthy recipe–I wish buckwheat was sold here in India so I could try it right away. Would you still toast the buckwheat if you bought the pre-toasted kind? May 11, 2011 at 10:00am Reply

    • Baebo: Hi katherine
      Buckwheat is sold in india , it is refered to as kuttu ka atta (buckwheat flour) sometimes generally as fasting flour as it tends to be used as a food allowed on religious fasting days . August 6, 2013 at 4:28pm Reply

  • Victoria: I know that buckwheat is eaten in the North of India, especially during fasts, since it is technically not a grain, so it is allowed. I even have some Punjabi recipes utilizing it.

    Even the pre-toasted kind from the Russian store benefits some more toasting in the oven, if only to give it a deeper, richer flavor. May 11, 2011 at 10:20am Reply

  • Uella: Very interesting, I have to try your dish, I love mushrooms! I’m a vegetarian and I’m in the process of learning to cook asian cuisines (I love nepalese dishes!). May 11, 2011 at 11:28am Reply

  • Tania: I only remember having buckwheat with mushrooms once, served to me by a friend, and it was so insipid I couldn’t imagine what the point was of this gritty, brown, sour little dish with no coherence. But I thought there must be something missing, some point lost in that particular kitchen.

    Now yours sounds more like it. I would love to smell those toasting grains in the pan: half an hour of roasting in oil! Plus the mushrooms and onion mixture that you detail is lusher than anything that ended up on any plate in front of me. And I bet you can guess when I do this, I am going for the all-butter option. May 11, 2011 at 12:02pm Reply

  • Victoria: Uella, I make this dish often during Lent (Russian Lent is pretty much an all-vegan diet for 40 days.) It is very satisfying.

    If you like Asian flavors, I recommend Kansha, Celebrating Japan's Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions by Elizabeth Andoh. It is written by a woman who has spent most of her life in Japan and includes many great recipes. Everything I tried so far has been excellent! Lots of information on culture and cuisine.
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile May 11, 2011 at 12:08pm Reply

  • Victoria: T, if you roast buckwheat in butter, it is even better! There is a Russian expression, "you can't ruin kasha with butter." In other words, there is no such thing as too much of a good thing. That's the Russian spirit in a nutshell for you. 🙂

    Plus, the variations on this theme are endless! Buckwheat goes really well with salmon too.
    Leftover pilaf can be mixed with a couple of eggs, some milk and baked under a sprinkling of cheese for a gratin variation.
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile May 11, 2011 at 12:13pm Reply

  • allyn: i agree roasting buckwheat in butter is the best way May 11, 2011 at 2:30pm Reply

  • Lavanya: I’ve never cooked with buckwheat. This dish looks yummy – I love the touch that toasty notes bring to a savory dish. bookmarking this one! May 11, 2011 at 4:31pm Reply

  • Victoria: Yes, it definitely gives it a richer flavor. May 11, 2011 at 7:22pm Reply

  • Victoria: One of my favorite breakfast dishes is buckwheat cooked as above (minus the addition of mushroom-onion saute,) and dressing with milk and a drizzle of honey. Perfect! This really reminds me of my childhood.

    It also goes really well with spicy Indian dishes, especially if they have plenty of sauce…. Now, I am getting hungry! 🙂 May 11, 2011 at 7:24pm Reply

  • misschips: I was just turning my thoughts to what to have for dinner… We’ve just had the most horrendous autumn cold snap and something warming was called for – this dish that uses the buckwheat in the cupboard and the end of the season’s mushrooms is simply perfect! Thank you. May 11, 2011 at 8:23pm Reply

  • Natalia: love this dish!

    i also add caramelized carrots when not using eggs. love the combo! May 11, 2011 at 8:36pm Reply

  • Victoria: I hope that you will enjoy it! It is very easy to make, and the aroma is wonderful. I am making some plain buckwheat right now for tomorrow's breakfast.
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile May 11, 2011 at 8:57pm Reply

  • Victoria: Oh, the addition of carrots sounds wonderful! I will definitely try it next time. As much as I experiment with food, some classical dishes I make the way my grandmother and my mother do, always reluctant to make changes on my own. Yet, whenever I hear of other families cooking these dishes differently, I like trying their variations too. As with fragrance, a variation on a classical theme can be an epiphany! 🙂
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile May 11, 2011 at 9:00pm Reply

  • Yelena: My family always toasted buckwheat differently, without butter or oil. We use only a beaten egg to coat the kernels, let dry in a frying pan for about 15 minutes and then toast over a low heat on the stove for about 20 minutes before steaming the buckwheat.

    A mushroom pilaf is one of my favorite preparations- your recipe looks fantastic. Or as a side for stroganoff. My very favorite way to eat buckwheat is also with milk and sugar for breakfast or a snack. You have just made me so hungry! I am actually going to start toasting some now for tomorrow’s breakfast. May 12, 2011 at 7:26pm Reply

  • Victoria: My grandmother toasted groats on the stovetop too, but I find a bit too much hassle–stirring constantly, etc. Once I discovered the oven toasting method (you can skip oil, of course,) I've never looked back. 🙂
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile May 13, 2011 at 4:06pm Reply

  • Undina: Victoria, thank you for the recepe I was just thinking recently that I haven’t cooked buckwheat in a long time. I’ll try it soon. May 14, 2011 at 2:21am Reply

  • Katrina: Sound wonderful. I will try this recipe and pay special attention to the aroma. I enjoyed the food I had while visiting Russia. May 14, 2011 at 7:49am Reply

  • Victoria: You are welcome! Buckwheat has such a great flavor, and whenever I make it, I wish I could bottle that savory, roasted aroma. May 14, 2011 at 10:42am Reply

  • Victoria: I am glad that you had good food memories from Russia. Most people complain about it, although it depends when you visit. Until recently, all that was available happened to be some cafeteria, mass-produced fare. These days the choice is much wider. May 14, 2011 at 10:44am Reply

  • Katrina: My best memories of Russian food may be eating in a Russian restaurant prior to the trip. We had some home cooked meals as our accommodation was a home stay. Pelmeni was my favourite and we had some nice soups too. May 15, 2011 at 2:51am Reply

  • Victoria: Pelmeni are my favorite too! Especially with plenty of sour cream. 🙂
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile May 15, 2011 at 10:20am Reply

  • Mack Shepperson: I would love to try your recipe! It looks like a sumptuous dish. I just hope it’ll taste good the way I cook it. LOL. BTW, what’s your preferred mushroom among the three that you’ve given? 🙂 December 15, 2011 at 6:00pm Reply

  • Victoria: A wild mushroom mix would be best, to have a range of flavors and textures. I am sure that your pilaf will look and taste just as good, if not better! It is a very easy dish, earthy and comforting. December 15, 2011 at 6:14pm Reply

  • Hamish Liddell: That’s a complete Russian breakfast – a good combination of grains and mushrooms. Is it okay if I replace buckwheat with any variety of rice? I think it can also be paired with that if buckwheat isn’t available in some shops. February 24, 2012 at 4:35pm Reply

  • Victoria: Yes, you can! Just adjust the quantity of water accordingly. Rice doesn't absorb nearly as much water as buckwheat, unless you are going to use the brown variety. February 24, 2012 at 4:38pm Reply

  • Yulya: Dear Victoria, I am so glad that you posted this recipe! I love buckwheat and with the addition of onions and mushrooms it makes a lovely meal even for my husband (who usually dislikes buckwheat). It is a traditional recipe in our family (at least has been since I remember myself as a child). My Granny used to place the pot in the oven, but, frankly, I never do that and it still tastes great! I also avoid butter (for health reasons) and oil works wonderfully. Thank you! October 9, 2012 at 5:30pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yulya, it is a dish I crave in the fall and winter especially. I think that the oven finish recall the traditional Russian oven cooking. In the Russian oven, the grains cook for several hours in the dying heat, which makes them soft and fluffy. My eldest uncle lived in the house with such a stove, and some of my childhood memories revolve around it–sleeping on top of it (it is so cozy and warm!), helping my grandmother cook, drying mushrooms in it, etc. October 10, 2012 at 3:40am Reply

      • Yulya: Victoria, yes, you are right about the Russian tradition “pechka” 🙂 I have never slept on top of it, but heard from my Mom about her sweetest dreams while sleeping on top of “pechka”.

        Thank you again! October 18, 2012 at 5:25pm Reply

  • Krista: I made this last night and it was a big hit! My 3 kids all raved about it and gave me a hug after dinner and told me thanks. I did 3/4 lb. of mushrooms and diced them instead of slicing (I was afraid my kids wouldn’t eat it if the mushrooms were too big).
    Thanks for a great recipe! April 16, 2013 at 10:14am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so happy that you liked the recipe, Krista, and above all, that your kids enjoyed it. It’s a family favorite for us too. 🙂 April 22, 2013 at 3:26pm Reply

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