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.

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