Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Buckwheat

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When you hear the word "buckwheat," what pops into your head? A child actor from "The Little Rascals?" An accordion playing Zydecko legend? If it doesn't already, hopefully the word will soon bring to mind a great tasting "grain" that is nutritious, sustainable, farmer-friendly and growing in popularity.

A Brief History of Buckwheat

Buckwheat, Fagopyrum esculentum, was one of the first crops cultivated in Asia, its lineage dating back for at least four to six thousand years. Buckwheat pollen dating from 4000 BCE has been found in the Balkans. A thousand years ago, when the Greeks brought Christianity to Russia, they brought buckwheat with them and it became a cornerstone of the cuisine. In Russia, where buckwheat is a staple crop, it is called grechka, which translates as "of Greek." Today, it is popular all over Europe, from Eastern Europe to the Mediterranean. 

Buckwheat arrived on our domestic shores with the settlers in the 1600s. It was planted by both Presidents Washington and Jefferson in their own fields. 

Buckwheat remained popular in the United States until the end of the 19th century. A change in farming practices led to its decline, as agriculture began to adopt the increasing use of petroleum-based fertilizers, inputs that boosts the production of cereal crops but stifles the productivity of buckwheat. In the last decade or so, buckwheat has received increased attention as eaters seek out ancient grains for their unique flavor, health benefits and contribution to biodiversity

Factual Nibbles

  • Buckwheat is not a wheat at all, but a fruit seed.
  • Cereal grains such corn, rice and wheat are types of grass. Foods such as buckwheat and quinoa, which are not grasses but are consumed like a grain, are called pseudocereals
  • Buckwheat's seeds resemble that of the beech tree and it is from that similarity that its name - originally "beech wheat" - was converted into buckwheat. 
  • The best Soba houses in Japan mill their own buckwheat to ensure that every nuance of the flavorful seed is available. 

Buckwheat Cultivation

Buckwheat is not a fussy plant and is valued for its adaptability to a variety of soil conditions. It prefers cool temperatures, which allow it to be grown at the end of the season in warm climates, after other crops have been harvested, and at higher elevations than grain crops typically tolerate. 

Buckwheat is grown all over the world. Russia and China make up the largest percentage of world production, coming in at 54 and 38 percent, respectively. Historically, buckwheat has been a crop grown in the Northeastern United States, but new varieties are being sown in areas of the Midwest and are also pushing the crop's hardiness zone further south. 

Farmers have traditionally employed buckwheat as a valued tool on the farm. As a "green manure" crop, a process that turns the mature buckwheat plants back into the soil, it can be used to bring fertility to previously unplanted land. Buckwheat is a popular "smother crop" that grows quickly and broadly, denying weeds a chance to take hold of an area of cropland. Planted on fallow fields, it makes a powerful cover crop that prevents erosion by wind or rain. Buckwheat is quick maturing and is ready to harvest 10 to 12 weeks after sowing. Its quick-growth habit makes it an easy crop to grow in rotation after the primary harvest. 

Environmental Impact of Growing Buckwheat

Buckwheat is not only a useful crop, it is a healthy crop that is exceptionally well suited to organic production. It is disease-tolerant. Buckwheat cannot tolerate herbicides and typical synthetic fertilizers can inhibit production, so it doesn't thirst for chemical inputs like more popular cereal crops. 

Buckwheat is rarely affected by pests, with the exception of deer, which will snack their way through an unprotected buckwheat field. In fact, buckwheat is a powerful attractor of beneficial insects such as ladybugs, which can suppress infestation of damaging pests such as aphids in nearby fields. Bees are crazy for buckwheat and hum happily amongst the flowering plants, turning their gatherings into one of the richest, darkest and most prized honeys - the molasses-like buckwheat honey

Buckwheat Characteristics

Buckwheat is a short, stocky shrub with heart shaped leaves and small white flowers. It is related to rhubarb and sorrel. Its seeds have a dark outer hull and inner groat that is triangular in shape. The hull is removed for processing and the remaining groat is roasted and often ground into flour.

Farmers choose from a number of buckwheat varieties to plant, including Koto, Manisoba, Manor, Common and Keukett. At the market level, however, the variety is rarely noted.

Buckwheat Nutrition and Effects on the Body

Because it is not a grain, buckwheat is suitable for eaters with gluten issues. It is rich in zinc, copper and manganese. Buckwheat is a complete protein, meaning that, like meat, it contains all of the essential amino acids that your body cannot produce - an important feature for vegans. Buckwheat is also high in soluble fiber and eating it has been shown to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.

What to Do with Buckwheat and How to Cook It 

Buckwheat's international popularity is apparent in the wide range of dishes in which it is featured:  

Russian Blini

The tiny pancakes that accompany classic caviar service, called blini, are traditionally made from buckwheat flour. Their tang and slightly bitter flavor offer the perfect background to the rich fish roe and red onion, sieved egg and sour cream accoutrement. 

Eastern European Kasha

Toasted buckwheat groats are called kasha. You can find them in the market whole or cracked, which cook much more quickly. They are served in both sweet and savory recipes. Kasha is often served as a breakfast porridge with milk. It is featured in the traditional dish, kasha varnishkes, where it is paired with bowtie pasta, onions and mushrooms. 

Japanese Buckwheat Soba

There is a deep respect for soba in Japan, where chefs make the fine noodles to order - starting with whole groats, grinding them into flour and then turning the dough into thin perfect noodles within minutes. You can do that. Or you can buy pre-packaged soba noodles. Many soba noodles are a blend of wheat and buckwheat flours, so be sure the package or ingredient list says "100 percent buckwheat" to enjoy the gluten-free benefits. 

Buckwheat Lettuce

The buckwheat leaves (a.k.a., "buckwheat lettuce") are sometimes eaten or even grown indoors in the winter for out of season salads. But eater beware: The leaves contain fagopyrin, a toxin that causes photosensitivity and skin problems in humans and animals that eat a lot of buckwheat greenery. 

Buckwheat Husks

Buckwheat husks, the outer layer of the seed that is removed during processing, are used to make pillows. They are reported to resist infestation by dust mites and relieve neck strain by conforming to your sleeping posture. 

Forage

Humans aren't they only animals that enjoy buckwheat. It makes a nutritious forage for ruminants. Cows enjoy it so much, in fact, that buckwheat straw cannot be used for bedding or the animals would have a feast. 

Storage

Buckwheat is very perishable, particularly once it is ground. When buying buckwheat products it is best to source them from outlets that have frequent turn over. At home, use them soon or store in the freezer. You can expect buckwheat flour to taste fresh for one month at room temperature; groats for two. Freezing will double the shelf life. 

Recipe: Summer Buckwheat Soba Noodles

Serves 4 

One of the easiest and most delicious ways to enjoy buckwheat is in soba noodles, where the milled flour takes on a toothsome texture and its earthy flavor is highlighted. This recipe is one of my favorites for a casual lunch with friends or a summer dinner that won't heat up the kitchen. You can swap in any ingredients you have on hand - a bit of leftovers or fresh vegetables - so it's a great way to clean out your fridge, too. Shredding some ingredients and dicing others provides a variety of textures. 

Because buckwheat is gluten-free, this is a super dish for eaters who are sensitive to that protein. Substitute gluten-free soy sauce if you want a meal that is entirely gluten-free. 

Ingredients:

1 package 100 percent buckwheat soba noodles

¼ cup soy sauce (gluten-free if you like)

¼ cup rice wine vinegar

¼ cup neutral flavored oil, such as canola

2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

1 cup protein, such as cooked chicken, steak, fish or tofu

2 cups cooked or raw vegetables (such as sliced peppers; seeded and diced cucumbers; steamed and chopped broccoli or cauliflower; boiled edamame or peas; shredded carrots jicama or any variety of cabbage; fresh bean sprouts)

Garnishes such as chopped cilantro, toasted cashews or peanuts or sesame seeds (optional)

Hot sauce (optional) 

Method:

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add a handful of salt and the soba and cook according to package directions until al dente. Be careful not to overcook the noodles. Drain in a colander and rinse the noodles with cold water until water runs clear and the noodles are chilled. Drain again. 

While the noodles are cooking, make the dressing. Combine the soy sauce, vinegar and oils in a large bowl and whisk to combine. Add the drained noodles and set aside while you prep your other ingredients, at least five minutes, to allow the soba to absorb some of the dressing. 

Add your prepped ingredients to the dressed noodles and toss again. Garnish as desired and serve.