• Russian Gourmet: Buckwheat

    Finish the following phrases: mashed potatoes and …?; peanut butter and …?; buckwheat and …? Oh, that’s right, you don’t eat buckwheat by itself or with anything else.

    Recently while browsing the Russian store with Dave and explaining what some of the foods are, I realized that many of the items are just not well-known or undeservedly forgotten in this country and the American people are missing out on a huge list of tasty and nutritious products. So I decided to feature and item or two and hopefully get some people interested in trying it out.

    Buckwheat was apparently very popular in the United States in the 18th and 19th century but since then its consumption went down to nothing while Americans switched to TV dinners and hamburger helper. Considering that buckwheat is easy to cook, tastes great, and contains pretty much every nutrient in the book it’s a shame that this ancient food is not in every pantry in this country.

    Sometimes buckwheat is not easy to find on the store shelves; Wolff’s Kasha may show up in the kosher aisle at the grocery store, other brands may be located where the grains and flours are sold, or at the Russian store where they sell buckwheat actually grown in Russia and Ukraine. Technically buckwheat is the grain itself and kasha is a cooked product similar to porridge. Not all kasha is buckwheat and not all buckwheat is cooked into kasha. When buying buckwheat  I prefer whole grain, roasted or not is your personal preference.

    Making kasha is fast and easy and there are multiple ways to do it. This is how my now-famous Mom does it.
    The ratio of grain to water is 1:2. Place one cup of buckwheat and a pretty good amount of kosher salt into a heavy-bottomed pan, cast iron pot or a skillet. Don’t worry about it being over-salted. Set heat to medium or little higher.

    Let roast, mixing occasionally. I usually go by smell, when it starts smelling like it’s beginning to burn you need to stop. It takes 5 minutes or so.
    While the buckwheat is roasting, boil a full kettle or pot of water. Pour enough water to cover buckwheat when it’s done roasting. I cover it with a lid immediately because it starts boiling and splattering violently. When the boiling, steaming and noise subsides, move the lid off just enough to drain water and proceed to drain as much water as you can without dumping the buckwheat. The water will be slightly brownish and this is the reason why you have to drain it. Repeat adding water and draining it one more time. Now add about 2 cups of boiling water and a chunk of butter; the amount of butter depends on your taste but consider an old Russian proverb that goes like “You can’t spoil kasha with butter”. Adjust salt to taste, since most of the salt used during the roasting was probably washed off.

    Now reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 15-20 minutes without mixing. Turn the heat off and let rest. Fluff with fork before serving.

    There are tons of variations and recipes with sauteed onions and/or mushrooms, buckwheat soup, buckwheat with milk, etc.; it goes good with meat stew, can be used in place of rice or macaroni products and whatever else you can imagine. Buckwheat is also gluten-free and is safe for people who are intolerant to gluten.

    Next time you want something simple and delicious, think buckwheat.

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  • Thomas Hart Benton working on his painting Persephone

    Development of my art skills stopped in the second grade when a teacher couldn’t recognize a watermelon in my drawing. However, I would have definitely applied more effort if I knew that a career in art allows for unlimited hours alone with nude women, who will not complain if their features will not look so flattering on the painting. It’s art, you know.
    Life Magazine archives have some images of Thomas Hart Benton working on his painting “Persephone” with Imogene Bruton as a model.

    Artist Thomas Hart Benton working on his painting Rape of Persephone in his studio using live nude model, while other students work alongside him.
    Artist Thomas Hart Benton working on his painting Rape of Persephone in his studio using live nude model, while other students work alongside him.© Time Inc. Alfred Eisenstaedt

    The following photo located on Google server was deemed in violation of adult content policies by Google. Go figure. You can still see it by clicking the link.

    Students sketching nude model in painter Thomas Hart Bentons studio class at the Kansas City Art Institute. Model is the same one Benton is using for his painting Rape of Persephone.© Time Inc. Alfred Eisenstaedt

    Painted clay model made by artist Thomas Hart Benton to serve as a three dimensional guide for his painting Rape of Persephone.
    Painted clay model made by artist Thomas Hart Benton to serve as a three dimensional guide for his painting Rape of Persephone. © Time Inc. Alfred Eisenstaedt
    © Time Inc. Alfred Eisenstaedt
    © Time Inc. Alfred Eisenstaedt

    Here is the final version:
    More photos of Thomas Hart Benton and his works.

    P.S. Nude models can apply here for free painting or just to hang out.

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  • How Jewish Are The “Soviet Jews”

    I previously discussed my feelings on the subject but I was happy to discover that I am not the only one pondering these questions. A short documentary by a young Soviet-born Jewish-Canadian offers a perspective I can identify with, a point of view from a person who came in contact with a different type of Jewish culture and now wonders if her own Jewishness is somehow not up to par. Since I arrived here at the age of 22 with established worldviews and my own understanding of what it means to be Jewish, I haven’t been subjected to the situations described by the people interviewed in the documentary, but I definitely recognized my own thoughts when she interviewed her Mom (although I do speak better English). I wonder if my daughter feels that way when she deals with her friends who have more active Jewish community and religious lives.

    Before the video I’d like to offer a quote from an article on the subject:

    It is not surprising that Russian Jews — who love their treyf, enjoy their Christmas trees and keep away from synagogues — leave American, Israeli and German Jews wondering what to think. Perhaps they should begin by considering the notion that Russian Jews have something of great value to contribute to the Jewish world.
    Russian Jews, with their radically global view of the Jewish world, with their ability to bring together thousands for a Yiddish concert or a Limmud gathering, with their multilingualism and transnationalism, belong at the center of conversation about Jewish life. With Jews around the globe seeking out new ways of expressing their Jewish identities outside the confines of traditional religious practice, Russian Jews’ own secular, ethnically driven notions of Jewishness, and their experience with maintaining community in multiple homes, may eventually place them at the center, not the periphery, of Jewish experience.

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  • Johnson County,KS: Then and Now

    Today’s feature may be called “Back to the future” or “Forward to the past” because it goes back to the time when this metro area had a commuter rail which some of us so desperately want now.

    Interurban Line

    The description of this image reads:
    Black and white film negative of two trolley cars on the Strang Line between Pflumm & Haskins on Walnut. The car at the left is an open car. Text on the left end: “SANTA FE TRAIL ROUTE.” Text along the side of the car roof: “MISSOURI & KANSAS INTERURBAN RAILWAY.” The car has a number of seated passengers and two children stand in the end of the car. Several of the women passengers wear hats. The right car is an enclosed car. An oval on the side of the car, in which the name of the car is may read “OGERITA.” The building at the far right is the Lenexa mill. A portion of a railroad stations appears to be visible behind the cars. Several utility poles run along the track. A portion of a house is visible at the extreme left. Bare dirt in the railroad right-of-way is in the foreground.

    You can find a brief history of the Strang Line on the the JoCoHistory website. Strang Line (officially named Missouri and Kansas Interurban Railway) was developed by William B. Strang Jr and existed between 1906 and 1940 providing a link between Olathe and Kansas City and further on to St.Joseph. A book by Monroe Dodd (recently laid off from the Star so buy the book!) A Splendid Ride: The Streetcars of Kansas City, 1870-1957 has more details and a better quality picture of the same or similar train. A website by Ed Gentry is dedicated to the Interurban linking Kansas City and St. Joseph.

    Today the old Strang Line can still be traced on the map and in a surviving street name.

    The site of the old picture still has rails but they belong to the real railroad.


    In the end it’s always the real people who make the old pictures come alive. Someone named Bob Blackwell commented on the museum photo in October 2006: “The picture is looking to the Northeast so the dirt road is probably at the front of the old Trails End Hotel. I have fond memories of the Strang Line although I do not remember any open cars. I do remember the Obregon car. My mother Francis Blackwell used to take me to Kansas City on the Strang Line so she could shop. I rode the Strang Line to Olathe to high school in 1938 until it closed down.”

    Maybe some day we will be able to ride “the highest, coolest and most beautiful ride out of Kansas City” and create our own fond memories.

    View Larger Map

    This look at the past was brought to you by the Kansas City Lunch Spots : Where Lunches and Spots Meet In The Open. Also sponsored by: My Job: Three-day weekends – plenty of time to waste Additional financing by: Light Rail: Dream on.
    Previous posts here.

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  • Behind the Iron Curtain: Prison Tattoos

    I you’d like to find out what’s going on in American prisons you have two choices: commit a small crime or read the best-selling Prisons For Dummies series. It’s a lot harder (but not entirely impossible) to get yourself locked up in a Russian correctional institution, so for the only other practical choice I recommend renting the documentary Alix Lambert’s The Mark of Cain. The film crew seemed to have unlimited access to prison facilities and inmates (they are called “ZK” in Russian jargon) which resulted in many candid interviews and interesting inside footage. While the movie starts off as a research in prison tattoos, their meaning and role in prison life, it goes on to describe living conditions in said prisons, which make some American lock-ups look like a picnic in a park, albeit with bars on windows and barbed-wired fences.

    When I was growing up© the legends about prison life were passed from person to person. Everyone seemed to know somebody whose uncle’s cousin served time or something like that. Prison life wasn’t idolized, we all knew it sucked, but at the same time it had a touch of a legend. I can draw a loose parallel to Jesse James: he was a bloody murderer but somewhat a celebrity at the same time. We knew about tattoos and how a person could get killed for drawing something that wasn’t appropriate for his prison ranking. (The movie actually mentions that there were known cases of tattoos being cut off with the skin.) We heard prison songs, it didn’t matter to us that some of the singers had never seen prison in their life. The songs were sad and hopeful, remorseful, defiant and we all knew them. Tapes were copied thousands of times and sold or passed around. Large part of Russian pop-music still sounds like old prison songs.

    You can find some information about the Russian prison tattoos online and in literature, but if you don’t mind subtitles I recommend you take a look at the movie for a quick intro


    By a strange coincidence – another tattoo-related post from XO on the same day when I was watching the movie.

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