Photos by 
Jessicarobyn Keyser
Jessicarobyn Keyser

This Ashkenazi Classic Is the Perfect Winter Dinner

by 
Joe Baur
October 19, 2021

Kasha varnishkes: This dish at its simplest is two or three large onions, sliced and caramelized in olive oil, butter, or schmaltz with toasted kasha (buckwheat groats) and farfalle pasta. That’s it, easier than level one in a video game. 

Ashkenazi Jewish cooks across the generations from Joan Nathan to Jake Cohen have been celebrating this savory shtetl classic. Michael Twitty, the award-winning author of “The Cooking Gene,” called it his favorite Jewish dish, telling The Nosher’s Jessica Leigh Lebos “it makes my heart sing.” It’ll be trending on TikTok and the like any day now.

Kasha varnishkes have become a staple of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine among the North American diaspora, but it wouldn’t have been a recognizable dish to all Ashkenazi Jews throughout Yiddishland. A Hungarian Jew might stare at it, wondering where to put the paprika.

The word "varnishkes" is believed to come from the Ukrainian "vareniki," a stuffed dumpling that contemporary Ashkenazi Jews might recognize as kreplach. Kasha, for its part, was popular across Russia, Poland, and Ukraine, referring to any number of grains from barley and oats to buckwheat and millet. 

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In the Goldene Medina (one term for the U.S.), the stuffed varnishkes became bowtie pasta covered with toasted kasha. Delis in New York City’s Lower East Side served it as a side dish. Sometimes you’d even find knishes stuffed with kasha, like at the 100-plus-year-old Yonah Schimmel Knishes Bakery on Houston Street.

Nowadays, kasha varnishkes is making something of a comeback. Except instead of playing Pippen to a superstar main course, it’s breaking out like Beyoncé in the early 2000s and stepping into the spotlight. (Come to think of it, this dish would pair nicely with a glass of lemonade.)

Because the dish at its core is so wildly simple, it’s easy to dress it up a bit to suit your palate. I find that the juice of a lemon combined with some ground coriander and broccoli makes this dish sing in your mouth like you’ve stumbled across Lumiere and the Beauty and the Beast crew singing “Be Our Guest.” Don’t believe me? Ask the dishes.

I don’t know if my Jewish ancestors ate kasha varnishkes. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel connected to the wonder that is Jewish history when I sauté those sliced onions over schmaltz, toast up some kasha, and serve it up for some growling bellies. It’s a culinary mitzvah.

Classic Kasha Varnishkes

 | 
Cook Time: 30-40 Mins
 | 
Serves 4

Ingredients

⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil, butter, or schmaltz, divided 

3 medium onions (size of baseballs), sliced

1 tsp kosher salt

1 cup kasha (buckwheat groats, hulled or unhulled)

1 large egg

2 cups of chicken stock or broth, divided

1 lb box dried farfalle pasta

2 heads broccoli

1 tsp ground coriander

Juice of one lemon

Fresh parsley, for finishing

Salt & freshly cracked pepper

 | 
Cook Time: 30-40 Mins
 | 
Serves 4

Ingredients

⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil, butter, or schmaltz, divided 

3 medium onions (size of baseballs), sliced

1 tsp kosher salt

1 cup kasha (buckwheat groats, hulled or unhulled)

1 large egg

2 cups of chicken stock or broth, divided

1 lb box dried farfalle pasta

2 heads broccoli

1 tsp ground coriander

Juice of one lemon

Fresh parsley, for finishing

Salt & freshly cracked pepper

Ingredients

⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil, butter, or schmaltz, divided 

3 medium onions (size of baseballs), sliced

1 tsp kosher salt

1 cup kasha (buckwheat groats, hulled or unhulled)

1 large egg

2 cups of chicken stock or broth, divided

1 lb box dried farfalle pasta

2 heads broccoli

1 tsp ground coriander

Juice of one lemon

Fresh parsley, for finishing

Salt & freshly cracked pepper

Directions

1. Heat ⅓ cup olive oil (or other fat: see ingredients) in a large skillet. Once hot, add sliced onions and season with salt & freshly ground black pepper. Sauté over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until soft and starting to caramelize, about 20 minutes.

2.While your onions are cooking, break down your broccoli: trim away any dry or woody spots from the stem, and then remove florets from the head. Cut florets into pieces no larger than the size of your thumb; set aside. Slice remaining stems/stalk into coins or matchsticks about ¼” thick.

3.When the onions are softened and brown, raise the heat to medium-high and add in sliced broccoli stems, tossing to coat. Saute until broccoli begins to color, about 5 minutes, and then deglaze the pan with 1 cup of stock. Simmer until stock is almost entirely reduced, and then remove from heat. 

4. While stock is reducing: heat remaining tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat in a separate skillet and add buckwheat groats. Fry in the pan, stirring often, until starting to brown and smell toasty, 2-5 minutes. Add the unused cup of broth to the skillet and lower the heat to a simmer, and cook, covered, until kasha has hydrated and absorbed all of the stock - 10-15 minutes. 

5. When the kasha has fully hydrated and no liquid stock remains in the skillet, raise heat to medium high and stir in one beaten egg. Scramble with the cooked kasha, stirring often, until set, then remove from heat and fold gently into the pan of sauteed onions and broccoli stems. 

6. Prepare farfalle according to package instructions, taking care to season the water. Add the trimmed broccoli florets to the pasta pot during the last 3-4 minutes of cooking to blanch. 

7. When pasta & broccoli are done cooking, reserve 1 cup of pasta water before draining, and then return to the pot. Gently fold in the kasha and onion mixture, utilizing the reserved pasta water a few tablespoons at a time while mixing to dress the pasta. Add salt and fresh lemon to taste, then remove from heat. 

8. Serve immediately, topped with additional freshly cracked pepper and chopped parsley.

About the Author

Joe Baur

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