Bucking the Norm
STORY AND RECIPES BY ROBIN POSEY
PHOTOS BY TARA AUSTEN WEAVER
As the season tips toward another long winter, as the rain settles in and the sky lowers, our city’s palette shifts toward more subdued colors: greys, dark greens, and purples. Our collective palate seems to shift as well, away from the sweet stone fruits and fresh-from-the-vine tomatoes of summer, to root vegetables and hearty greens, soups, stews, and braises.
With a color evocative of Seattle’s winter sky, silky, grey buckwheat flour delivers flavor postcards from places I’ve never been—the north coast of France, Brittany, where salt marshes form a dramatic backdrop to the wild winter ocean, or Moscow, where diners enjoy blinis and caviar while the snow softly falls. This is the time of year when I reach for the bag of buckwheat flour in the pantry, the time of year I crave a nutty, almost earthy, flavored alternative to dishes such as polenta and hot breakfast cereals, while expanding my repertoire to master the crêpe.
The United States doesn’t produce nearly as much buckwheat as Russia and China do, and what we do grow tends to be exported, used for feed crop, or tilled back in to improve soil fertility. While North Dakota devotes more acreage to cultivating buckwheat, Washington is the nation’s highest producer in terms of bushels per acre harvested. In 2012, Washington state produced approximately 47 bushels of buckwheat per acre, far surpassing the national average of 22 bushels per acre, and North Dakota’s 18 bushels per acre. Except for a tiny amount that will be added to baking mixes, most of Washington’s buckwheat is exported to Japan, where it will be milled into flour and teased into slippery Soba noodles, the leftover husks used to stuff pillows and cushions.
When left whole in groat form—called kasha when toasted—buckwheat acts like tiny cone-shaped torpedoes of nutrition. Per cup, buckwheat delivers 17 grams of dietary fiber, 23 grams of protein with an almost complete amino acid profile, including high levels of lysine and tryptophan, so you’ll feel satisfied longer after eating a breakfast of groats. Additionally, buckwheat contains minerals such as iron, copper, manganese, and magnesium, all of which contribute to the body’s overall ability to absorb nutrients. Buckwheat has high levels of riboflavin (B2) and niacin (B3), and contains several polyphenolic antioxidant compounds.
The more I learn about buckwheat, the more I want to plow up the lawn and replant the small plot out front with the grain. Buckwheat is hardy, with little need for fertilizer. The flowers are a favorite of bees, who use the pollen to make a dark honey with notes of warm molasses and cocoa. As a quick grower, buckwheat is capable of suppressing the weeds that might choke a weaker plant, while leaving the soil better than it found it. This robustness is partially attributable to buckwheat’s status as a pseudocereal—not a member of the grass family, but a relative of sorrel and rhubarb—and therefore able to tolerate conditions in which wheat will give up the ghost. Truly, buckwheat is an ancient grain with some pluck.
And ancient it is. Evidence of buckwheat’s cultivation appears in archeological digs all over the world: pollen found in Japan dates back to 4,000 BCE, traces of buckwheat found in Finland hark back to 5,300 BCE, and the steep, inhospitable slopes of Tibet have hosted buckwheat for thousands of years. There locals mill buckwheat and eat it as dhedo, a dense, dippable accoutrement, the injera of the Himalayas. Buckwheat noodles aren’t limited to the Japanese soba, either. Korea has its naengmyeon, a cold noodle soup, while Northern Italians enjoy pizzoccheri, buckwheat noodles typically cooked with cabbage. In India, when Hindu fasting days prohibit eating rice or wheat, buckwheat closes the gap with kuttu ki puri—buckwheat pancakes—and kuttu pakoras, potato slices dredged in buckwheat flour and fried in oil.
With its human-friendly nutritional profile, and its ability to grow in areas where other grains can’t, buckwheat is a go-to crop should you find yourself with a field that needs a little something—and the bees will thank you. When it’s time to hunker down under these grey Seattle skies, your tummy will thank you too.
Robin Posey is a Seattle-based writer and chef. When not at her desk or in a kitchen, Robin is either walking her dog and exploring the world, or reading on the sofa. Visit her at chefswearclogs.blogspot.