The legal grass that is actually good for you

The grass seed - or grain, as some call it - buckwheat has nourished generations of Jews.

By Ruth Joseph, September 2, 2009

Buckwheat, part of our Eastern European food heritage, is a living anomaly. For it bears no relation to wheat and although it’s considered a grain, it isn’t really — rather, it is a type of grass-seed called an achene.

It began its history in South East Asia around 6000 BCE, quickly spreading to Central Asia, Tibet and finally to Europe in about 4000 BCE.

It was one of the earliest so-called grains to be domesticated. And for the European Jews, it was a boon, as it grew well on poor or acidic soils and could be planted in the spring and harvested. Then the base and roots could be dug in (called green manure), providing a well-needed dose of phosphorus to the soil for the summer corn crop planting. It is a grass that needs insect pollination but if planted near bee hives, yields a sweet, dark, rich honey as the perfect reward.

And the Jews adopted this innocuous seed never realising that it was an Ashkenazi super-food. For not only does it contain all the essential amino acids but it is also rich in iron, zinc plus selenium — known to help protect from some cancers — as well as rutin, which assists in strengthening capillary walls, reducing high blood pressure while increasing microcirculation in those diagnosed with varicose veins and other conditions. Recently it has been found to bind to cholesterol, thus helping those with high cholesterol problems as well as type 2 diabetes and polycystic ovaries. And as it contains no gluten it is a valuable food for coeliacs or those with gluten allergies.

Wherever it was planted, it became part of the food culture of that nation. Russians, Ukrainians and Poles roasted the “groats” and filled knishes or blintzes, mixing it with lockshen bows to make kasha varnishkes. Ground into flour, the American Mid-West pioneers stored it in covered wagons for simple nutritious pancakes. The French created crêpes, Russians made blini and the Belgians cooked their bouketes.

In Korea, the flour made a jelly; in Northern Italy, a type of handmade pasta called pezzoccheri; and in Japan it became the soba noodle — easy to digest and so full of flavour.

So why has buckwheat lost its former attraction? Many believe it is the dark, almost bitter flavour that is considered too challenging for modern palates. But this can be an advantage, especially when it is topped with the strong flavours of a fried wild mushroom, onion and garlic combo.

Do not forget soba noodles. You have to take care in the cooking — the ones also containing wheat are easier to manage. But added to a light vegetable stock, with slivers of fresh ginger, spring onions, pak choi, shitake mushrooms and a hint of chopped chilli, it makes a delicate lunch or unusual starter.

And then there’s the blini. In Russia, blini, soft mouth-watering delicacies, were the food of legend. Sadly, all we see today are the dry, hermetically-sealed mini-offerings in supermarkets with long shelf-life as their selling point — a supposed dream companion for a slice of smoked salmon and horseradish cream topping.

So a luscious, home-made blini was my challenge.

Try my healthy parve yeasted blini, choc-full of flavour, delicious served with a fried mushroom or traditional smoked salmon topping — well worth the effort.

Healthy Parve Yeasted Blini

Makes 20 blini

● Either 70g (2oz) buckwheat flour plus 80g (3 ½oz) strong wheat flour
● Or 150g (5½ oz) buckwheat flour
● 250mls, (9floz) soya milk warmed to blood temperature
● Scant tablespoon olive oil plus extra for frying
● 1 medium egg
● ½ teasp dried yeast
● ½ teasp sugar
● ¾ teasp salt

● Sieve flours. In a bowl, whisk sugar, yeast and a little flour with warmed milk.
● Leave in a warm place until liquid bubbles. Beat in remaining flour, salt and oil.
● Separate eggs. Beat yolk into mixture. Leave mixture approx 15 mins in warm place.
● Whisk white in grease-free bowl until there are soft peaks and fold gently into blini mixture.
● Heat a little oil in non-stick pan until medium hot — not smoking.
● Drop dainty ladles-full onto the pan. When bubbles form on top, flip and cook other side. Keep warm, then serve and enjoy.

Last updated: 12:50pm, September 2 2009