Taste columnist Greg Atkinson says that grains change dramatically when they're stored or milled too far in advance of baking. So fresh local grains are worth seeking out.

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HERE IN Washington state, the country’s third-largest wheat-growing region after Kansas and North Dakota, our principal grain is grown on vast farms east of the mountains, then shipped to Pacific ports for export around the world.

Only a fraction of our wheat is produced in the more densely populated western half of the state. But this wasn’t always the case. For much of our early history, wheat and other grains were produced on small farms on the west side of the mountains and brought to mills and markets less than 100 miles from the fields. Grains change dramatically when they’re stored or milled too far in advance of baking. So fresh local grains are worth seeking out.

Last fall, the Kneading Conference West met at the Washington State University agricultural extension in Mount Vernon to talk about reinvigorating regional grain systems. In those talks, minor grains such as buckwheat came up. Although botanically speaking, buckwheat is a fruit not a grain, it is handled in the kitchen as if it were a grain. And it thrives west of the mountains. Playing around with buckwheat in the kitchen prompted me to try traditional French crepes, originally made with buckwheat.

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Greg Atkinson is a Seattle-area chef, author and consultant. He can be reached at greg@westcoastcooking.com. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Buckwheat Crepes with Caramelized Onions and Cheese

Allowing for a couple of failed attempts, makes 8 crepes to serve 4

For the crepes

1 cup whole milk

1 ½ teaspoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1 tablespoon butter, melted

1/3 cup buckwheat flour

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk

For the filling

1 tablespoon butter

1 pound (about 2 medium) onions, peeled and thinly sliced

4 ounces mushrooms, thinly sliced

6 ounces Gruyere

1. To make the crepe batter: Blend the milk, sugar, salt, butter, flours and egg until smooth. Cover the batter and chill overnight. Before cooking the crepes, bring the batter back up to room temperature.

2. To fry the crepes, heat a 9-inch nonstick skillet or a traditional crepe pan on the stovetop. To season the pan, wipe the interior with a paper towel that’s been dipped in oil or butter (this step is only necessary for the first crepe).

3. Lift the pan and pour 1/4 cup of the batter in the middle of the hot skillet, swirling the pan to distribute the batter quickly and evenly. If the pan is the right temperature, about 375 degrees, the batter should start cooking within a few seconds, giving you just enough time to swirl it.

4. After about a minute, run a nonstick spatula around the underside of the rim of the crepe, then flip the crepe over. Allow the crepe to cook on the flip side for about 30 seconds, then slide it out onto a dinner plate. Repeat, cooking the crepes with the remaining batter, stirring the batter every so often as you go.

5. To make the filling: Melt the butter in a heavy saute pan over medium heat. Cook the onions slowly for 15 minutes, stirring regularly to achieve a uniform golden brown. Add the mushrooms and continue to cook until the onions soften and caramelize and turn to a rich brown color. This will take at least 30 minutes; don’t rush it and don’t let the onions burn.

6. To fill the crepes, put 2 tablespoons of the caramelized onion mixture in the middle of each crepe, sprinkle on 2 tablespoons of the cheese and pop the crepe under a preheated broiler until the cheese is melted. Fold the crepes into quarters and arrange two on each plate. Serve warm.

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