In late July, I found myself standing in a field at dawn in the fertile Skagit Valley in Washington state. Gazing across a patchwork of test plots, each planted with a different variety of wheat, buckwheat or barley, I listened as Prof. Stephen Jones described the work he does with his graduate students. Jones is a Washington State University grain researcher, and a leading voice in the effort to make whole grains taste better.
Between the waving wheat and beautiful barley, I saw a plot filled with flowers. Waist-high and blowzy, the plants were covered with delicate blossoms that ranged from white to pink, and would have made a lovely bouquet for the table.
It was buckwheat.
“That one is from Bhutan. They selected on the beauty of it, for sure,” said Jones.
He is working with students to maintain plots of 120 varieties of buckwheat from 19 countries. “We are breeding new varieties ... looking at flavor, color and early maturity.”
“Buckwheat is great for the soil, the bees and for us. What is not to like?” Jones said. “It also has strong cultural histories in many regions of the world, from Asia to Europe, Africa, the Americas and beyond.
“In Japan, they grind buckwheat that’s been hulled for high-end uses like soba, but in the U.S., we leave the hulls on,” said Jones.
Suddenly, I was overtaken with a desire to grind some hulled buckwheat groats into flour and make something with it, to see whether it was the next quinoa. You see, the hulls that we are grinding into most buckwheat flour in the U.S. are the paper-thin, black wrappers that encase the seeds, and they are dark and bitter tasting.
When you buzz buckwheat groats in a blender, you will get a pale, whole-grain flour with less bitterness. It’s available on the internet as “light buckwheat flour,” but I’ve never seen it in a store.
Buckwheat is easy to grow, matures quickly and is gluten-free.
“It has five times the lysine as wheat and is high in resistant starches,” said Jones. Resistant starches are pre-biotics and good for the gut, and are the darlings of the weight-loss community, because they keep you full longer.
If you have a blender, you can grind a cup of buckwheat groats for this recipe; you don’t need any special equipment. Or you can use buckwheat flour from the store.
Either way, give buckwheat a try, for its nutty, slightly minerally flavor — and to blow a kiss to the bees.
Robin Asbell is a cooking instructor and author of “Big Vegan,” “The Whole Grain Promise” and “Great Bowls of Food.” Find her at robinasbell.com.
Savory Buckwheat Cakes With Zucchini “Ratatouille” and Chèvre
Makes 8 cakes.
Note: Savory pancakes make a lovely light lunch or dinner. They are best eaten hot, right off the griddle, piled high with colorful vegetables and a crumble of creamy chèvre. Buckwheat groats are in the natural foods section of your grocery store, and at any food co-op. Vegans can sub the eggs with 1/2 cup water and 2 tablespoons ground flax, and stir a cup of white beans into the ratatouille. From Robin Asbell.
• 1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 small onion, chopped
• 1 medium red bell pepper, cored and chopped
• 1 medium orange bell pepper, cored and chopped
• 2 small yellow zucchini, quartered and sliced
• 2 garlic cloves, chopped
• 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1/2 c. fresh basil, slivered
• 3/4 c. buckwheat groats (142 g/5 oz.), or 1 c. plus 2 tbsp. buckwheat flour
• 1/4 c. whole wheat pastry flour
• 1 tbsp. fresh thyme, chopped
• 1 tsp. baking powder
• 1/2 tsp. baking soda
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 3/4 c. milk
• 2 eggs, lightly beaten
• 1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
• 3 tbsp. buckwheat honey
• Oil for pan
• 5 oz. crumbled chèvre cheese
• Fresh basil, for garnish
To make the ratatouille: In a large sauté pan, warm 1/4 cup olive oil over medium-high heat, then add the onion and peppers. Sauté, stirring for about 3 minutes, until softened. Add the zucchini and garlic, and stir for 4 more minutes, until crisp tender. Add the tomatoes and 1 teaspoon salt, and stir just until the tomatoes are warmed through. Take off the heat and add basil just before serving.
To make the pancakes: Place the buckwheat groats in the blender and cover, then blend for 20 to 30 seconds. Feel the ground buckwheat by rubbing with your fingers. If it feels smooth, proceed, if not, process again.
Transfer the flour to a large bowl. Stir in the thyme, baking powder, baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt.
In a medium bowl, whisk the milk, eggs, 1/4 cup oil and honey. Stir the liquids into the buckwheat mixture, just until combined.
Preheat a griddle to 350 degrees, or place a heavy pan on the stove over medium heat.
When the griddle or pan is hot, brush or spray with oil. Use a 1/4 cup measure to portion the batter onto the griddle, leaving an inch between the cakes. Cook for 2 minutes or so, until bubbles cover the top surface of the cake, then flip the cake and cook for about a minute. Keep warm until serving.
Serve two cakes per plate, with about 1 1/2 cups ratatouille on top and crumbled chèvre over all. Garnish with fresh basil.
Nutrition information per serving of 2 cakes:
Calories 680 Fat 44 g Sodium 1,390 mg
Carbohydrates 58 g Saturated fat 11 g Total sugars 23 g
Protein 19 g Cholesterol 110 mg Dietary fiber 8 g
Exchanges per serving: 2 starch, 2 carb, 2 medium-fat protein, 6 ½ fat.