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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ASPARACUS TIPS: Traditional Buckwheat Comes From Russia's Romantic Past

While scanning the supermarket shelves for items of interest last weekend, I stumbled across a traditional European food that is also well known in North America -- buckwheat.

Buckwheat is the common name for the family of an annual herb that is not related to the true wheats. Common buckwheat is a native of the shores of the Caspian Sea and the Amur River region, which forms the Chinese-Russian border for 1,610 kilometers before swinging to the northeast and emptying into the Tatar Strait on the Sea of Okhotsk.

Buckwheat was introduced into Western Europe around the 16th century. The seeds are used for livestock and poultry feed and are ground into flour or groats; the plant is used for forage. Bees make a dark, highly flavored honey from its flowers. Buckwheat flour contains no gluten and somewhat less protein and more starch than wheat flour.

Dock, sorrel, and rhubarb are also members of the buckwheat family.

People learned to hull grains and cook them whole long before it occurred to them to make flour and bake bread. That was why cooked cereals, or kashas, became staple food for the ancient inhabitants of Russia. Kashas are associated with everyday as well as festive eating.

Buckwheat, or grechka in Russian, looks a little like small, brown rice kernels. Buckwheat flour is used in blini. To make buckwheat porridge, or grechnevaya kasha, heat 1 measure of buckwheat with a bit of vegetable oil or fat to coat the kernels. Pour on 2 measures of water and a little salt, cover and cook gently, preferably in an earthenware casserole, for 15 to 20 minutes. The porridge is served hot with melted butter, milk and sugar (for children), or with sauteed onions or mushrooms.

Grechnevik is a traditional Russian buckwheat bake. Boil 1 1/2 cups of buckwheat in 2 1/2 cups of water until the water is absorbed. Mix with a beaten egg and then spread the mixture on a greased baking tray. Bake in a moderate oven until set, then cut into rectangles and brown on both sides in a frying pan with some vegetable oil.

A sweeter, and more complex variation uses 2 cups of buckwheat mixed with 1 or 2 eggs. The mixture is spread on a baking tray and dried in the oven. The mixture is then forced through a coarse sieve. Add 2 cups of sour cream, 3 tablespoons of sugar and 3 tablespoons of raisins, and turn out into a greased, deep earthenware pot or an iron pan. Bring to a boil and then bake until set.

The Estonians make Shrove Tuesday pancakes with buckwheat for their Shrovetide feast. This version calls for 1 1/2 to 2 cups of wheat flour and 25 grams of yeast mixed into 2 cups of lukewarm water. Beat the mixture with a wooden spoon and put the batter in a warm place to rise until it has doubled in volume. Add 1 cup of scalded milk, a pinch of salt, 3/4 cup to 1 cup of buckwheat meal and 2 eggs. Beat well and let the batter rise to return to volume before adding the milk. Beat the batter once more, and then fry spoonfuls of the batter in hot oil. The pancakes are served hot with melted butter, fish roe or sour cream.

Buckwheat is available at most shops; at EML supermarket, imported buckwheat was priced at 27.80 rubles for 500 grams; Russian buckwheat was 6.30 rubles for a kilogram. At Stockmann it sells for 28.50 rubles for 500 grams.

EML, Smolenskaya Nab. 2/10, 241-9281. Nearest Metro Smolenskaya. Open 24 hours daily.

Kalinka-Stockmann, 2 Zatsepsky Val, 953- 2602/951-1924. Nearest Metro Paveletskaya. Open 7 days a week, 9 a.m. to midnight.