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Earthy elegance

Buckwheat flour's rich yet subtle flavors mingle well with robust seasonal favorites.

October 29, 2008|Ysanne Spevack | Spevack is a freelance writer.

Buckwheat may seem like an old familiar in savory Breton crepes or in earthy, nutty Japanese soba noodles, but it's also a uniquely versatile ingredient that can be baked into biscuits, rolled into Italian pasta and embraced in other ways that might surprise even, say, a veteran cookie baker. Cookies become crumblier, pancakes have a richer crumb, pasta remains firmer, and they all benefit from buckwheat's nuttiness, its texture and substance.

Buckwheat's subtle flavors also mingle well with such seasonals as avocados, black kale and goat's cheese.

One of the oldest crops in the world, buckwheat grows in climates ranging from the highest fields of the Tibetan plateau to the lowest reaches of Australia and has been integrated into cuisines around the world for the last 8,000 years.

Traditional Russian blini are made with buckwheat flour; they're similar to crepes but are made with a yeasted batter. Buckwheat has a distinct flavor that holds up to the addition of caviar, creme fraiche and minced raw onion.

And there are variations on this theme. Ingredients with a velvety mouth-feel can mimic the richness of creme fraiche. Mash avocados, whip Greek yogurt, blend goat's cheese or fresh creamy ricotta. Caviar provides a tangy saltiness, but replace it with a tart-sweet ingredient and blini become a light delicious dessert. Try fresh local figs, grapes, dates or pomegranate.

For many years the secret ingredient of gluten-free bakers, buckwheat flour has caught the attention of other cooks. Buckwheat is a seed, not a grain -- that's why the flour doesn't act like regular wheat flour in cooking. When buckwheat is milled, it produces a powder that is far more absorbent than wheat flour. Think of it almost as a nut meal. For this reason, it is usually augmented with some wheat flour for structure.

Cookies made with buckwheat flour have an incredible texture, crisp and crumbly yet tender. The flavor of buckwheat is rich and subtle, a natural with rich nuts such as walnuts.

Although the idea of making soba noodles from scratch often leaves adept cooks trembling, pizzoccheri, an Italian analogue made with buckwheat flour (called farina di grano saraceno in Italian) mixed with durum wheat flour, is much simpler. Pizzoccheri dough is more than double the amount of semolina to buckwheat, making for a more glutinous mixture that gives the dough better structure and makes it easier to knead, roll and cut.

Like soba noodles, pizzoccheri are cut with a knife instead of being squeezed through a pasta-cutting machine.

But pizzoccheri are flat and thickly cut, with a pleasingly homey appearance and varying widths, and served with a comforting mixture of soft potatoes, creamy melted cheeses and fresh greens. It's the buckwheat pasta -- dense (in a seasonally appropriate way, with just enough spring) and flavorful -- that makes it rustic and elegant.

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

Pizzoccheri

Total time: 1 hour, plus 1 hour resting time for the dough

Servings: 8

Note: Adapted from "Cooking by Hand" by Paul Bertolli. Buckwheat and extra-fancy semolina flours are available at well-stocked supermarkets, and cooking and baking supply stores. Fontina valdostana can be found in well-stocked cheese sections of major markets as well as at specialty cheese stores.

2/3 cup buckwheat flour

1 1/2 cups extra-fancy semolina flour

2 eggs

5 teaspoons salt

2 large or three medium boiling potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8 -inch thick

1/2 large head savoy cabbage, separated and torn into pieces

7 tablespoons butter

8 to 10 sage leaves

1 garlic clove, chopped fine

1 cup grated Fontina valdostana cheese

1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1. Place the buckwheat flour and semolina in a large bowl and make a well in the center. Add the eggs and one-fourth cup plus 2 tablespoons water. Use a fork to stir the mixture together. When the dough begins to form a shaggy mass, alternately squeeze and press it with the palm of your hand. Press any loose bits of flour into the dough. If it is too dry, add water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough comes together. When the dough feels tacky and the flour is fully incorporated, transfer it to a clean, lightly floured surface and knead for 4 tor 5 minutes, or until it loses its surface moisture, is a uniform color and springs back when pressed. Wrap the dough in plastic and allow it to rest at room temperature for at least 1 hour before rolling.

2. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface until it is a rectangle no more than one-eighth-inch thick, then use a fluted pastry wheel to cut it into strips three-fourths-inch wide and 6 inches long.

3. Heat the broiler.

4. Bring 1 gallon of water to a boil and add the salt. Add the potatoes to the boiling water, then after 2 minutes, add the cabbage. Boil the vegetables for about 5 minutes, or until the cabbage is tender but not soft. Remove to a plate with a slotted spoon and keep the water boiling.

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