Back in the wild and wooly days of childhood in Maine, my mother had a regular weekly cycle of hot cereal with which she fortified us prior to heading out the door for the mile long trek through the snow that was the first leg of our daily trip to school. Oatmeal, wheat berries, rice cereal, cracked wheat, kasha … with butter, cinnamon and sometimes cooked with raisins or apples. The kasha (another name for buckwheat) found its way onto the menu via our Russian grandpa. It was my favorite of the bunch with its unusual, nutty flavor and fluffy texture.
But it wasn’t until many years later, living in Northern California, and faced with an incredible overabundance of wild Chanterelle mushrooms, that I rediscovered kasha as a savory dinner dish. In a Russian cookbook, I came upon the simple combination of mushrooms, onions and kasha — which, together, taste like the Earth, herself. This is a hearty, nourishing combination perfect for this time of year, when days are getting shorter, and things are getting chilly, blustery, wet or frosty, depending on where you live.
Here in the ever-moist Pacific Northwest, wild mushrooms are almost a religion, and I was recently lucky enough to receive several mushroom gifts from Chris Smaka of Portland’s School of Traditional Western Herbalism. (Check it out here: http://portlandherbalschool.com/) It had been a long time since I’d tasted wild mushrooms, and savoring these delicacies reminded me with a jolt how very different wild foods are. Things that grow in the soil of the ancient forest seem to go straight to my bones, feeding what Chinese Medicine calls the “Kidney Essence”, our deepest source of energy. Learning to identify wild edibles and medicinals is a wonderful way to slow down and connect to the rhythms of nature. (You can’t be staring at your phone while hunting wild mushrooms!) I can’t help but feel the knowledge of how to sustainably use wild plants for food and medicine is one of the essential qualities that makes us human, and we run a huge risk to our collective humanity as this knowledge in its many unique, local variations dies out. It makes me happy that Chris’s students are excited to devote a rainy Saturday to traipsing about in the chilly forest, learning about mushrooms 🙂
Despite its name, buckwheat is actually not wheat at all. In fact, it is a seed and is gluten-free. It’s also a complete protein, meaning it contains all the amino acids considered essential for humans — ie, we can’t produce them ourselves so have to consume them. And as my mom used to say on those cold mornings, “It will stick to your ribs!” Buckwheat is super easy and fast to cook – even faster than quinoa or white rice — really takes barely any time at all — truly a natural “fast food”.
MUSROOMS & KASHA (to feed 4 people — approximately!)
- 1 cup toasted buckwheat groats (Bob’s Red Mill is available online)
- Mushrooms (about 8 cups of whatever kinds you have – wild or store-bought)
- 1 onion
- 1 tablespoon each, chopped, fresh rosemary & thyme (or a teaspoon of each, dried)
- 1 teaspoon ground juniper berries (optional — if you can get them, lovely) Allspice is a more easily available substitute.
- Several cloves garlic
- Black pepper
- Balsamic vinegar
- Salt, tamari or Braggs Liquid Aminos to taste
- 2 cups water, vegetable stock or bone broth
- olive oil, butter, ghee or several slices diced bacon
- Greens, optional — as much as you like! (Swiss Chard, Arugala especially nice)
- Toasted pumpkin seeds (optional — for garnish)
- Sliced hard boiled eggs (optional — a great addition if you want to add more protein)
Clean and coarsely slice mushrooms, and set aside. Chop onions, garlic, and fresh herbs if you’re using, and put in a large skillet with several tablespoons of your oil of choice, on medium heat. (Add ground juniper if using.) Stir every few minutes until the onions are nice and golden brown. Now add the mushrooms and a bit more oil if things seem dry. Saute about 5-10 more minutes until the mushrooms are tender and just a little bit browned. At the very end, splash in a tablespoon or so of balsamic vinegar — and whatever salty condiment you’re using. Add black pepper to taste. If you’re going to add greens (which I highly recommend) put them in now, stir into the hot mushrooms and cook just one minute, then turn off the heat, and cover the pan so greens have another few minutes to wilt without overcooking.
To prepare kasha: Put one cup in a pot with a lid. Then stir in two cups of broth or water. If you’re using water or a broth that contains no fat, add just a teaspoon of butter or olive oil. Bring the water to a boil, and turn down as low as heat will go and still sustain a simmer. Cook just until all the liquid is absorbed. (For me, this is usually just a minute or two after water has boiled.) Add a tablespoon of oil, and fluff with a fork. Serve in bowls with mushroom mixture piled on top.
Many thanks to Chris Smaka for the gorgeous photos of Oregon mushrooms in their native habitat. If you’re in Portland, stop by his Herbal Apothecary on the ever-hip Alberta Street … https://www.facebook.com/theherbalapothecarypdx/