Against the Grain: Kasha

I’ve had this book on my desk at the office for awhile, and when people see it, they think it’s a joke. And by all means, it should be. The cover, the way the author suggestively, yet goofily samples the dish in front of her, though the presented chicken legs surrounding a floating island of rice doesn’t seem to have any room for her food prop. They ask if I won it on ebay, or had it shipped from 1972 (copyright is 1981, as it happens) or if I’m planning an ironic retro cocktail party.
None of this is the case.

I then ask them to pick it up, flip the pages, and let it fall naturally to an open page. What they’ll find is one of the first meals I ever cooked on my own. At 13, armed with the knowledge of how to read a recipe and how to send my mom off with a shopping list, I tackled the “Special but Inexpensive Dinner for Three” that spans pages 93-95. I think it might have been for her birthday.

Somewhere in my how-to-cook education, I read somewhere that a good cook should have battered cookbooks, that they should have food splattered on them, that they should have notes in the margins. This is why I made a note to myself to “cut oranges in 1 more section than said,” so when I made this Special Dinner again in the future, I’d know better.

Though I haven’t felt compelled to make the Orange Chicken again (and looking at the recipe, I can see why) the Kasha Pilaf is something I come to time and time again. I have kasha kicks throughout the year. I made huge batches of it in High School, so there’d be enough for me and enough for Gary to poach some (whole grains!). It served me well on a student’s budget in college and a Bay Area resident’s budget now. And when I lived in Russia, I found comfort in the familiar grain. In fact, my host mother was a pretty awful cook, and though she always offered more, the only thing I’d take her up on was some kasha for breakfast every day.

And though I’ve made this kasha pilaf a few times a year for the past, say, 15 years, though I’ve pulled the same ingredients out of the pantry and fridge in the same amounts, and though I’ve followed the same steps again and again, something compels me to go over to the shelf and let the book fall open to page 94 before I can begin heating up the pan.

There’s something inherently comforting about the dish, and not just in the final product, but in the preparation. The words are soothing like the repeated words of a children’s book you haven’t read in 20 years. There’s an unexpected poetry in the prose, a rhythm I come to rely on. “Slice celery thinly. Chop onion coarsely.” Though the other measurements are inexact, I always make sure the ratio of kasha to broth is just right, and I’ve never understood why the author went to the trouble to implore us to spoon off one teaspoon of the beaten egg, like that extra bit would somehow ruin the pilaf.

Though I’m trying a lot of new things in the Great Grain Experiment of 2009, it’s nice to know I’m not in entirely new territory, that I’ve been down the dark path of grains before, and that year after year, it leads me to this page, to this old world taste. To comfort and familiar. To a warm bowl of kasha pilaf.


Against the Grain: Quinoa

The more I delve into this wide world of grains, the more I’m finding a disconcerting trend in the recipes I find. While one might conventionally praise an ingredient for its taste, how it can balance a dish, even for its luscious texture, grains are often lauded for something entirely different. Their nutritional benefit. I haven’t found this to be true with any grain more so than with quinoa.

Did you know it’s the perfect protein? It’s got vitamins in it! Oh, the fiber, my god the fiber!

Great. It’s good for me. So is most everything else I eat after I swore off HFCS and got into my CSA. And if it’s something that’s not ‘good for me’ in a conventional sense, like, say, a bacon cheeseburger from Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, I assure you, it’s good for me in a whole host of other ways. I’m much better for having eaten that burger.

Right, so quinoa. It’s good for me. Solid. What else does it do?
Well, unlike the treacherous wheatberries, quinoa kinda rocks. Preparation is impossibly easy. It’s like slow couscous. 15 minutes of a slow simmer and it’s done. And there you have it, a blank good-for-you canvas that, supposedly is good for just about anything.

I gave it a trial run mixed in with some sautéed leeks, peas and langoustines, which, in all fairness, was such a killer combination, it’d be hard for any grain to fail. Still, quinoa held up, balancing the buttery leeks and shellfish with an earthiness that didn’t get in the way. They’ve got this fun little snap to them too. A texture that is, dare I say, cravable.

Sunday I was off to see Wilco at the Greek in Berkeley, and in an effort to contribute to the picnic and bring some whole grains into the picture, I sautéed some shallots with prosciutto and peas and incorporated the quinoa. Again, success. While in my distracted state I might have over-seasoned, co-workers dug into my leftovers Monday offering, “There is nothing not great about this.”

Nice to hear.

Getting home late on Tuesday, I was not in the mood to cook. It happens. I was a stone’s throw away from ordering thai, but, remembering my commitment to the granular cause, I fired up some quinoa instead. One of my favorite weeknight dishes is sautéed cauliflower with bread crumbs and a little pancetta over oreciette. Something about the redundant whiteness of the dish makes it seem perfectly indulgent, even though cauliflower delivers vitamins and fiber like any other veggie. So, ditching the pasta I subbed quinoa and it totally worked. Dare I say, it was better. I finally get this whole ‘heartiness’ thing everyone’s been touting.

Somewhere between Sunday’s picnic and Tuesday night dinner I realized, save for the porky bits in these dishes, I’m cooking Gary food. Brown food with veggies. Quinoa is working for me, and I managed to finish off the box in a week and change. Unlike, oh, wheatberries, I believe there will be a repeat purchase in my future. Onward, to Barley!

(there were going to be more pictures, really, but I've run into some technological bad luck lately. But I know you don't just come here for the picture, do you.)