When I was a kid, the only food I hated almost as much as my mother’s tuna fish casserole was my dad’s buckwheat pancakes.
Sour and kind of stinky, just one bite of those purplish cakes was enough to convince me they were disgusting.
“It’s an acquired taste,” my dad tried to tell me, unsuccessfully. No amount of cajoling would change my mind.
It wasn’t until decades later, on a leaf-peeping trip to West Virginia’s Coopers Rock State Forest, that I took a long-overdue second bite at a local cafe, and realized what I’d been missing. They ever delicious.
Dad was born in West Virginia, so it makes sense he enjoyed a lifelong love affair with buckwheat. Farmers used to plant buckwheat as an “insurance” or “catch” crop. Easy to cultivate even in rough soil, farmers could count on high yields with low effort. Buckwheat grows so fast that it chokes out weeds without the need for pesticides, and it doesn’t attract insects except for honey bees.
But for many more of us, buckwheat is unfamiliar, unless you’re talking pancakes. In farming, wheat and corn eventually pushed buckwheat into the background, but it never fell completely out of favor. But it did have something of a PR problem.
John McMath, who heads the National Buckwheat Institute, thinks it might have had something to do with the buckwheat pancake mixes of old. Because they included a lot more husk, the cakes had a deep, dark color and more pronounced nutty flavor.
“People would taste it and it was not as acceptable as wheat,” he says.
Now, as gluten-free diets have gained in popularity, that has started to change.
“We’ve seen major growth in the last few years as people recognize all of its benefits,” says McMath, who also is a former director of Birkett Mills in upstate New York. The company mills more than 95 percent of all the buckwheat in the country. So much so, the mill now runs around the clock, seven days a week, using less hull for a lighter product. Even the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., has it on the menu, he says.
Despite having the word “wheat” in its name, buckwheat is actually a teardrop-shaped seed, and therefore is naturally gluten-free. Botanically speaking, it’s a fruit that’s related to rhubarb even though the Whole Grains Council and the USDA consider it a whole grain.
Buckwheat is most familiar as a flour with which to make pancakes, crepes, muffins or quick breads. But you also can buy the whole, intact seeds with the hull removed (groats) or toasted groats (known as kasha) or a processed hot cereal called “cream of buckwheat.” When ground into flour, it gets its dark color from the husks that are ground into the mill along with the seed inside the kernel.
Japanese soba noodles are made of buckwheat. It’s also a main ingredient in savory French galettes and traditional Russian blini. Buckwheat can be used in cold salads and hot casseroles, along with soups, skillet dishes, pudding, chili and even burgers. On the nutty side, buckwheat can be switched for wheat, barley or rye to brew gluten-free beer, such as Rogue Ale’s Buckwheat Ale.
For those not looking to go wheat free, it’s a nutritional dynamo that’s one of the best sources of balanced plant-based protein. The carbs in buckwheat are digested more slowly than with regular wheat so you'll feel fuller, for longer.
“And it will help keep you warmer in winter,” McMath says.
Kasha-Stuffed Italian Peppers
Roasted buckwheat kernels – also known as kasha – are a nutritious substitute for potatoes or rice.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onions
1/2 cup diced carrot
8 ounces fresh white mushrooms, sliced (about 3 cups)
1 cup whole kasha
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dillweed or 2 teaspoons dried
1 cup crumbled feta cheese (about 5 ounces)
4 sweet green or red bell peppers, cut lengthwise in halves and seeded
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat oil. Add onions and carrot; cook and stir until onion is tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in mushrooms, kasha, salt and black pepper. Cook and stir until mushrooms are tender and kasha is lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Stir in 1 1/2 cups water and the dill; cover and simmer until water is absorbed, about 10 minutes.
Stir in half of the feta. Spoon kasha mixture into each pepper half, dividing evenly. Sprinkle with remaining feta. Arrange peppers in a single layer in a microwaveable dish.
Add 1/2 cup water to the dish. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or waxed paper; microwave on high until peppers are tender, about 10 minutes. Let stand 3 minutes. (I skipped this step, with good results.)
Arrange stuffed peppers in a single layer in an ovenproof casserole dish. Add 3/4 cup water to the dish. Cover tightly with foil. Bake until peppers are tender, about 30 minutes.
Yield: 4 servings.