It was a scorcher last weekend. Virtually no cloud for about three days, but it looks like we are in the final moments as there have been a few April showers since Monday. Update: by the time I got round to posting, it was decidedly cooler, but hey – good for the garden!
Like about two-thirds of the UK population with access to a car, I took the opportunity on Sunday to head to the coast and soak up some rays at the picturesque Camber Sands in Sussex, just along from the very pretty town of Rye. It used to be on the coast, but over time, the coastline moved out, and now it is about two miles inland. Well worth a visit to see the cobbled streets and charming old houses.
Camber Sands has fantastic sand dunes (some of the best in Southern England), lots of open beach and, of course, the chilly waters of the English Channel reminding those that ventured into the sea that it was still early April. I’ll be back when they water has warmed up though!
Everyone brought along a few things for the picnic. I had a green salad, various crackers and dips, and a buckwheat salad. Yup, buckwheat.
Buckwheat is a funny, some might say gritty little grain. Try one – that’s the texture, right? It appears in blinis, galettes bretonnes, poffertjes, soba noodles and…not much else, at least in terms of my cooking repertoire. Fair to say, it’s also not a frequent star on British dining tables. Bit of a shame, as they are also quite a pretty, jaunty little grain, which just happens to be gluten-free, so useful if you’re unable to eat wheat, or are just trying to cut down (personally, I’m far from being gluten free, and will happily wolf down anything a bakery throws at me…).
I’ve recently made a lot using cous cous, from the fine French type to the large-grained Palestinian variety, so I wondered if I could do something similar with buckwheat as the main grain in a dish. But how to cook the stuff? Oh, what to do?
Boiling is one (obvious) option, but that tends to be rather aggressive and can make grains break down into a gloopy, soupy, starchy mess. So I opted for the gentler option of soaking the grains overnight, then rinsing them and steaming for about 30 mins.
The result was, quite simply, amazing. Far better than I hoped for in fact. The grains became soft and plump, but stayed fluffy and kept their shape. Then I just mixed the buckwheat with some sliced vegetables and added a simple dressing for a healthy, filling dish. Also doubled up later in the week as a tasty supper.
At this stage, I realise this is sounding like every stereotype of vegetarian cooking you could possibly imagine, short of this being used to make a lentil nut loaf. Well, rest assured, the result is delicious and filling, with plenty of taste. I had meat eaters chowing down on this with glee. I put part of this down to the dressing, which contained sesame oil and a little bit of chili, so it still packed a flavourful punch and had plenty of interesting textures.
So next time you want to make a dish for a picnic, give the pasta a break and perhaps try that funny little packet of buckwheat you’ve been wondering exactly what to do with.
To make buckwheat and green bean salad (side dish for 4, main for 2):
For the salad:
• 200g buckwheat
• 100g cherry tomatoes
• 1/4 cucumber
• 1 small celery stick
• 200g green beans
For the dressing:
• 6 tablespoons dark sesame oil
• 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
• 2 tablespoons rice vinegar / white wine vinegar
• 1/2 teaspoon sambal/harisssa paste (or chili)
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• pinch of sugar
The night before, soak the buckwheat in a pan of cold water.
The next day, rinse the buckwheat well in cold, running water. Drain and place in a steamer (*). Cook for around 30 minutes. The grains are done when they are plump and soft – you may want to fluff the buckwheat every 10 minutes to ensure it is cooked evenly.
While the buckwheat is cooking, prepare the tomatoes, cucumber and celery by cutting into pieces according to your mood (chunks or paper-thin slices, as you like it!). Shred the green beans on the diagonal, and add to the steamer for the last 10 minutes of the cooking process (**). Once the buckwheat/green beans are done, put in a salad bowl with the rest of the vegetables.
Next, make the dressing – combine the ingredients in a jam jar, and shake it madly until smooth. Check the flavour and adjust to taste (you might want more oil, or vinegar, or soy, or chili…go with what tastes right to you). Pour the dressing over the salad and mix well until everything is well-coated.
Serve the salad warm or at room temperature (***).
(*) I don’t own a steamer. I improvise with a metal sieve placed in a saucepan of boiling water,and place a saucepan lid inside the sieve. It forms a pretty good seal, and seems to do the job. Might be an idea for the kitchen wish list…
(**) This way, no extra pot to clean!
(***) As the grains don’t really absorb the dressing, you can easily mix everything ahead of time, rather than waiting until just before serving.
Worth making? I was pleasantly surprised how this method of cooking buckwheat worked out. It has texture and a nutty taste, and cooked in this way with vegetables and a robust, flavourful dressing, it makes for a filling supper or a nice picnic side dish. G’won. Try it!