On cold autumn evenings, we all reach for our comfort food. What kind of comfort food? The answer will vary greatly depending on where you come from. If you grew up in the United States, it’s probably mac and cheese or baked potato or some other form of warm-cheesy-high carb-starchy food. If you come from Germany, it might be Käsespätzle (also mac and cheese but with a heap of fried onions) or some form of Schnitzel. Swedes have their meatballs, Italians have their pasta, Latin cultures have chiles and mais, while population in Asian countries have thousands of rice dishes. What about me? Well, lets just say it’s none of the above.
Growing up in Ukraine, I ate a lot of potatoes, rice and pasta (all of the items shared by other cultures) but they were also the only food I ate for, like, years because nothing else was available. It’s ironic how now parents in developed countries have to plead with their children to eat fruits and vegetables at least once in a while when some children could only dream of bananas and brocoli (ok, the last one may be a slight exaggeration but I did dream of bananas). The point is that now I have little desire to eat either potatoes, rice and pasta unless they spark my curiosity by presenting themselves in new light (e.g. sweet potatoes, wild rice, or ink-squid flavored pasta). However, one grain from childhood that stuck with me up to this day is buckwheat. Consumed widely in Ukraine, it’s not really known outside of Eastern Europe and Russia despite being sold even in my neighbooring [health-oriented or ethnic] grocery stores. This little golden seed cooks in only 20 minutes so its an ultimate healthy fast food that offers variety of nutritional health benefits and unusual earthy flavor.
I like to eat buckwheat surrounded by simple vegetables that I also associate with childhood and Ukraine — cabbage, beets and carrots. My favorite way of eating cabbage comes from my mother’s staple recipe where fresh cabbage is cooked with sauerkraut in equal proportions with a bit of grated carrots and pureed tomatoes mixed in. Cooked mostly in its own juices with very little added oil, its a very simple dish but one that I inevitably come back to when I am trying to reconnect with my past and remember my ‘roots’. Beets were typically boiled and grated or cubed to make a salad but I had an idea of making beet
meatballs, inspired by GKS beet burgers. Since the idea of vegetarianism was pretty much unknown in starving country that was recovering from collapse of Soviet Union, pork and beef meatballs were a common way to consume meat because they were made from ground (mystery) meat heavily spiced with cheap white rice. I guess they should have been called riceballs with meat flavor. Years later, meat long gone from my diet, I still occasionally crave ‘meatballs’ (although without element of meat and rice) so making them from beets and rye flakes turned out to be a delicious alternative.
You may find that the preparation method for my comfort bowl is too complicated or that combination of ingredients is too weird and that’s OK. Rather than trying to encourage you to try my recipe, I encourage you to seek your own comfort food, something that holds a special memory for you, and then look for a healthier way to prepare and consume it. Oh and by the way, this recipe produces a lot of veggie peels and scraps so what a great time to start your own compost bin :)
Cabbage Buckwheat with Beetballs
1 cup raw buckwheat (if you can’t find raw, you can try toasted version sold as ‘kasha’)
1/2 head green cabbage
400g / 14 oz jar of sauerkraut
5 oz tomato puree (or blend 1-2 tomatoes in food processor)
1 tsp caraway seeds
1 tsp ghee or olive oil
3 large beets (or 4-5 small)
1 cup flakes of your choice (oat, rye, etc)
handful of fresh dill or basil leaves
handful of feta or goat cheese
splash of olive oil
Cover buckwheat with 1¾ cup of water, bring to a boil, add a pinch of salt and simmer for 20 minutes until water is absorbed. Depending on variety of buckwheat you buy (and your luck), you may end up with slightly mushy texture. If you do, don’t be discouraged and still trying eating it. I have to admit that I am not an expert on cooking buckwheat so it’s a hit or miss even for me.
Using food processor or a sharp knife, shred raw cabbage and add to a heated skillet with melted ghee or oil. Peel and grate carrots using food processor or a box grater and add to the cabbage along with pureed tomato and caraway seeds. Mix and let cook on low-medium heat uncovered for 5-7 minutes. Drain sauerkraut and add to the skillet, mix and cover the lid. Cook for 20-30 minutes on low, until cabbage is cooked through (you can tell by tasting cabbage – it should be uniformly soft – not mushy but not crunchy either.
Using same food processor or box grater (don’t bother washing), grate peeled beets (be prepared for purple stains all over your kitchen, towels, hands and clothes – don’t worry, it tends to wash off if you do it immediately and energetically). Place grated beets in a bowl, add oat or rye flakes, cracked eggs, chopped herbs, crumbled cheese and oil. Mix thoroughly using your hands. Let the mixture rest for at least 10 minutes. In the meantime, line baking sheet with parchment paper and heat oven to 375 degrees. Using hands, carefully shape balls (whatever size you like) and place on the baking sheet. Depending on moisture content of the mixture, it may be tricky to make it stick – if it’s really difficult, try waiting another 10 minutes or add a bit more flakes to soak up extra liquid. I learned that squeezing excess liquid with my palms while shaping balls helped. Bake for 30 minutes, rolling balls on the other side after about 20 minutes of baking (they should not be falling apart much at this point).
Store leftovers in separate containers in the fridge and they should keep you sustained and cozy for several days.