As more and more American search for gluten-free options to add into their diet, alternative grains are appearing more frequently on the restaurant and food scene. One of such is buckwheat, and it’s likely not what it might seem. Though it looks like a grain and tastes like a grain, it is actually not part of the cereal family at all. Buckwheat is a nutritionally dense and gluten-free relative of rhubarb and sorrel that is eaten throughout the world.
The kernels, called groats, are hulled, roasted and served as a side dish or stuffing, or ground into a blue-gray flour used to make everything from traditional Breton-style crepes to Japanese soba noodles and Russian blini. Long used in savory preparations, both the groats and flour have also been embraced by pastry chefs for all kinds of sweets.
“Buckwheat has a full frontal flavor that I try to accentuate, not hide,” said Shuna Lydon, the pastry chef at Calliope restaurant, in New York. “It’s earthy, assertive and unique.” At Calliope, Ms. Lydon created a trifle of cream biscuits made with buckwheat and all-purpose flours, layered with plums, blackberries and whipped cream. She has also used buckwheat in combination with milk chocolate, an unusual pairing she finds complementary. “Buckwheat is a totally underutilized ingredient,” Ms. Lydon said. “You just need to find someone it can dance with at the party.”
Sean Brock, chef-partner at Husk and McCrady’s, both in Charleston, S.C., said that at the restaurants they use buckwheat more often in sweet preparations than in savory ones. He favors the flour from Anson Mills, which he described as “so strongly flavored it almost tastes dirty—which I love.” At Husk, the peach crisp has a crumb topping made with a 50-50 blend of buckwheat and all-purpose flours; Mr. Brock said the earthiness of buckwheat counters the sweetness of the South Carolina peaches.
At McCrady’s, Mr. Brock serves a buckwheat ice cream made by steeping toasted groats in a custard base. At Yusho, in Chicago, chef-owner Matthias Merges takes things several steps further. He begins by infusing the ice cream base with both toasted groats and Sichuan peppercorns. Then he serves a scoop on a cone made with buckwheat flour, and sprinkles it with a hard caramel flavored with a buckwheat infusion. Mr. Merges makes the latter by cooking toasted groats in sugar and letting the whole mass cool and set before crushing the caramelized groats to make a crunchy garnish.
At Tartine Bakery and Bar Tartine, both in San Francisco, Chad Robertson uses buckwheat flour in combination with other flours in many of his breads. And he recently developed a recipe for a buckwheat sablé cookie especially for his wife and co-owner, Elisabeth Prueitt, who is gluten-intolerant. Delicate and crumbly, enhanced with toasted hazelnuts and lemon and orange zests, the sablé is a perfect bite-size showcase for this grain that isn’t, really.
Photo credit: NY Times