Caramelizing onions mid-morning may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, it was heaven for me. And Leah Koenig was not staring as suspiciously at her bowl of kasha varnishkes as the above image implies, but she was having a moment.
Leah is a fantastic writer who has authored six Jewish cookbooks, and is currently working on Rome’s historic Jewish cuisine. I had the great fortune of cooking with her today, via Zoom, as part of the KlezKanada festival’s extraordinary selection of events. It was magical, and she is awesome.
What’s extra lovely about working alongside an excellent cook (even virtually) is getting to hear all the little culinary insights you may not consider. Like why we really should keep the pot covered when reducing onions. Because… the condensation collects in the lid and rains back down, helping to keep it from burning and significantly contributing to the softening process. Huzzah.
Leah is an excellent instructor and remarkably kind, with an ease and looseness that makes cooking with her a joy. She slightly adapted the recipe we used from the version she has in her seminal work, The Jewish Cookbook, which came out in 2019 and is already a classic and total must-have.
Thank you, Ms. Koenig; it was a blast to cook with you.
Better Than Your Bubbe’s: Kasha Varnishkes
As Leah explains: With all due respect to our collective ancestors, their takes on kasha varnishkes – the iconic Ashkenazi dish of toasted buckwheat mixed with noodles and fried onions – were too-often a bit lackluster. Of course, even when dry and tasteless, kasha varnishkes is still a loveable dish, but it should – and can – be absolutely spectacular. This class will examine the history of kasha varnishkes, and share the techniques and recipe behind a perfect dish of kasha varnishkes that tastes like tradition, only better.
12 oz farfalle (bow-tie pasta)
1/3 cup vegetable oil (ideally sunflower) or chicken schmaltz, plus more for drizzling
2 large onions, halved through the root and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon onion powder (note: NOT Osem, onion salt, or onion soup mix, just plain old dehydrated, ground up onion)
1 1/2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
3/4 cup whole kasha (roasted buckwheat groats)
Freshly ground black pepper
Finely chopped parsley, for serving
** lemon zest, garlic (this was added for the live demo and mixed with the parsley and then added to the dish. It was delicious.)
Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, about 11 minutes. Drain, transfer to a large bowl, and toss with a drizzle of oil.
Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, abou 15 minutes. Uncover, season generously with salt, and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the onions are very tender and have reduced in size by about one-third, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the onion powder and remove from heat.
In a medium saucepan, bring the stock to a boil over high heat. Stir in the kasha, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until kasha is soft and liquid is absorbed, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes. Then add the pasta along with the cooked onions. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve warm, topped with a mixture of lemon zest, parsley and garlic.
This recipe is reprinted from The Jewish Cookbook (Phaidon), by Leah Koenig