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Kasha Varnishkes

When we lived in New York I attended the wonderful day school called Yeshiva of Central Queens (YCQ) and it was a wonderful school – filled with warmth and wonderful teachers and staff, my principal Rabbi Brander was inspirational, not least of all because of the time he made for me.

Lunch unsurprisingly was my favourite bit of the day, we would line up with our lunch trays and be served wholesome American food, burgers, and meatloaf, or macaroni and cheese and tuna bakes (don’t judge – it was the 80’s) but about once a week we got some seriously traditional eastern European fare. It only occurred to me in retrospect that the lunch ladies were a group of Hungarian and Polish holocaust survivors. Because these were the grandparents I grew up with, a tattoo on an arm was sadly usual. On what I called ‘shtetl lunch days’ we would be served things like borscht, liver, and kasha varnishkes. And I hated those days! They were days of tomato juice instead of orange juice and black bread instead of soft white bread. This is what I didn’t know, firstly that the food they served could taste so much better when not cooked on an industrial scale for a school and second that it came from a place of love, that these women were concerned, and it turns out they were right. The staple American diet just wasn’t all that good for us.

Today kasha varnishkes is my moment to reminisce about school lunches and the clash between our Eastern European grandparents and their American grandchildren.

  • 500g (1 pound) large or small bow tie-shaped pasta
  • 6 tablespoons (though you may need more) vegetable oil or chicken fat (schmaltz)
  • 8 large shallots, sliced in rounds
  • Salt
  • 480ml (2 cups) chicken or vegetable broth
  • 190g (1 cup) coarse kasha (toasted buckwheat)
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or coriander (optional)
  1. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add the pasta, cook, until al dente. Drain well, transfer to a large bowl and drizzle with oil, set aside.
  2. Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat until very hot, add the oil and heat until the oil shimmers, add the shallots and fry until golden, season with salt and keep cooking until deep gold. Remove to a plate.
  3. Heat a dry sauce pan and add the kasha and toast until the kernels start becoming fragrant, about a minute, add the broth and lower the heat so the broth keeps simmering, but doesn’t boil, cover the pot, cook until the kasha is soft, about 10-12 minutes.
  4. Add the cooked kasha and the onions to the pasta, stir and season well with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with parsley and or coriander just before serving.

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