Buckwheat. How Can It Be This Good?
Buckwheat. Not buck-related in any way. And not wheat. It’s not even a cereal. It’s more like a teeny-tiny sunflower seed. And the “buck” is a corruption of Middle Dutch “boek,” (beech tree), because the kernels look like little beech nuts. According to K.A.H.W. Leenders, the grain was first cultivated in the Lowlands in 1389, but can be found in Iron Age settlements, suggesting that it was harvested in the wild and mixed with other grains. Seriously old-school.
Fun facts about buckwheat (as usual, for a given definition of “fun”). It is gluten-free (but in noodle form, it’s usually mixed with wheat flour, so read your label carefully). It was a major crop in the U.S. throughout the 18th and 19th century, as part of the pre-nitrogen fertilizer crop rotation. Americans ate it primarily in the form of yeast pancakes, which were a breakfast staple well into first decades of the 20th century, but which have now completely disappeared. Another U.S. foodway lost, alas.
Russians eat it a lot: kasha porridge, kasha varnishkes (buckwheat and bow tie pasta), and in the stuffing of all kinds of pies and dumplings.
And in Northern Japan, it’s transformed into noodles, soba. Where buckwheat is still eaten, it carries a lot of cultural baggage. It’s soul food, peasant food–real food. The mystique of soba is huge: the best soba is homegrown, hand-milled, and made at once into noodles to be eaten on the spot. I’m happy to report that even commercially-produced soba from a gigantic chain grocery is delicious, though, and makes the best hot-weather supper imaginable. I like mine with sauted greens on the side, which is not authentic. But a tangle of kale, chard, broccolini, beet greens, and mustard greens (from the ever-blessed csa), washed, roughly chopped, and quick-fried in olive oil, made an astringent and lovely accompaniment to a cold bowl of these.
Cold Sesame Noodles (adapted from Nigella Lawson’s indispensable Forever Summer, which is for my money her best book)
Toast 1/2 cup sesame seeds in a dry frying pan over medium heat till they are dark golden brown and glistening. Pour them onto a plate to cool. DON’T LET THEM BURN!
In a largish bowl, whisk together 1 tablespoon rice vinegar (not the seasoned kind), 2 tablespoons tamari, 1 tablespoon honey, and 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil.
Cook an 8-ounce package of dried soba according to the package instructions, or snag a couple of vacuum-sealed packets of fresh soba from the refrigerator case of your grocery, and pass them quickly through a boiling water bath and then (in both cases) into a big bowl of ice water. Drain thoroughly and dump them into the sauce. Toss gently, cover, and refrigerate for as long as you can wait. An hour is good, if you can manage it. If not, put it in the refrigerator, wash, chop and saute your greens, and pull the noodles out as soon as the greens are limply crisp and toothsome. Put greens and noodles into a bowl, cover with sesame seeds, and enjoy. It’s especially tasty eaten outside.
If there’s any left over (good luck!), it makes a great bento item.