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Friday, December 20, 2013

When Boundaries Come Down - Lunch at St Germanshof

 
Way out in the country


When boundaries come down, as they have all over Euroland, you get some interesting situations. Sometimes you have to hear someone speak, or catch a glimpse of a sign on a shop window to know where the hell you are. If you visited Europe before the European Union formed in 1993, you’re in for a shock.

With the Schengen agreement, in what was once known as Western Europe, the borders do not exist except on paper.  Drive wherever you want and never show a passport.
But, I don’t want to chat about governmental agreements…yawn…I want to lead you to a special, romantic, intimate place that straddles Germany and France.  The perfect place to take that special someone, or your wife.
Breakfast.  Lunch. A quiet dinner for sixteen?  Take your pick.  Bring your appetite and a close friend’s MasterCard.
St Germanshof Hotel is one of those picturesque places that make you stop the car, back up, and pull into the parking lot, even if your wife is screaming that ‘This is the middle of nowhere.”  Don’t listen.  She’ll soon change her mind.  And don’t be surprised to find you’re not alone.

The specialty is wild game.  In the summer, it’s not unusual to find a wild boar roasting on a spit in the biergarten.  Happened to me.  We’d just finished some superb trout and I wanted sunshine and a frothy beer.  I asked the waitress, “Where’s the biergarten?”
“In France.”  She pointed out the window to the bar, wooden tables and the big boar on a spit.  Never seen a wild boar.
So I asked the man at the grill, “What kind of dog is that?”
“Not a dog, a boar!”  He was kind enough not to use the word imbecile.  What the heck?  YOU ever seen a wild boar over a fire?  Lean looking.  Long, ugly snout.  Looks nothing like a big hog. Big bastard.
This latest trip was in November.  Nothing doing in the biergarten.  Fire inside.  Crowded, as usual, but no problem getting a table for two, and this time no screaming wife.  I mean, she was there.  Don’t want to give the wrong, ahem, impression.

Once again, we both went for the fresh trout, with toasted almonds.  Superb.  Two dishes that people constantly and disastrously overcook, fish and fowl.  This fish came tender, delicious, falling right off the bone, without a shred of dryness. 
Delicious, buttery potatoes, almost too perfect to eat!

Accompanied by a light white, German wine, fresh potatoes, and a mixed salad, it was just the thing for a fall day. 
Bread with an herbed quark (much like sour cream) spread.


No dessert, but we lingered over coffee.Germany is like that.  No rushing.  You’ll see tables of just men, or just women. Time for friendship and conversation.  Relaxing.
By the way, the St Germanshof is also a hotel.  If you’re planning to be in the area, stop by their web site first. Spending the night would not be a hardship. It’s about an hour and fifteen minutes, almost due south of Kaiserslautern





Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Challah - A quick way to dress up your meal!





I’m sure you’ve heard of Challah (Cha-la), the traditional Jewish bread served on the Sabbath and holidays.  Braided bread.  Lots of those around in different countries and cultures.  This one is easy to make and goes great with stews and other cold weather meals.

Aside from simplicity, why would you want to make Challah?  Lots of choices.  You’re going to the synagogue’s Wednesday night potluck.  You thought Monica Lewinski was really, really  cute.  Braids bring up fond memories of your fifth grade girlfriend.  Or, Challah has the tender sweetness of your ninth grade girlfriend, who was also easy to make.

Thanks, Bob, but I think I’ll go with number five:  Challah’s such a crowd pleaser, the women will want to kiss the cook. I say, let ‘em!

One thing different about Challah from most braided breads, is that it’s parve.  Rabbis may call me on this, but to me, Kosher is divided into three areas:  meat, dairy, and neither. For now let’s keep it simple.  Parve is the ‘neither.’  So in the case of Challah, the bread is made without butter, milk, or any meat products.  How about eggs???  Also parve.

Another thing, Challah is a European Jewish tradition.  Middle Eastern and Spanish-background Jews use unleavened bread on the Sabbath, something more like pita. 

Lots of variations.  12 braids, 6 braids, 3 braids.  Sometimes raisins or nuts, sometimes whole wheat flour.

Enough chitchat.  I go simple.  No raisins or nuts.  3 braids.  My recipe, stolen unabashedly and without shame from a former associate, is also very simple.  Throw the ingredients in a food processor.  Put the dough in a greased plastic bag and let it rise.

Wait a sec.  You probably want to know the ingredients.  Ever helpful am I!

3 1/2 Cups flour (I use organic, unbleached.)
1 package yeast (If you can get fresh yeast, it’s even better.  Use half a cube)
1 egg
1/4 cup vegetable oil (I use sunflower oil)
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 Cup sugar
1 Cup warm water (95ºF or 35ºC)
Turmeric, as desired to make the bread yellow (Not too much! Turmeric is bitter!)

Dissolve the yeast in warm water (in the food processor).  Add sugar, salt, and two cups of flour. Mix well, using the dough blade.  Add egg and oil and mix again. If you want the bread to have a yellow glow, add a few pinches of Turmeric at this point.  Add the remaining flour and knead for ten minutes.  The dough pulls away from the sides of the food processing bowl, and has an elastic feel.

Place the dough in a greased plastic bag and allow it to rise.  In cooler weather, I put the bag in my oven and leave the oven light on.

When the dough is doubled, about an hour or two, take it out of the bag and form three balls.  Pull and roll each ball into a long strand (about 15-18 inches long). 



Pinch the strands together at one end, braid them and then pinch the final end. 




Put the loaf in a long bread pan and let it rise again.  If you want the bread to have a shiny look, brush the braided loaf thinly with a beaten egg.  Sprinkle on sesame seeds for an extra touch.


Same loaf after the second rising.  Note the difference in size from the photo above.


Bake at 375ºF or 190ºC for 25 minutes, or until the top is a medium golden brown.



Talk about delicious cultural diversity!  Mazel Tov!




Friday, December 6, 2013

Cornbread Dressing - Simply Delicious

Everything you'll need

Holidays are times for favorites and that especially means food.   Gingerbread cookies, whose deliciousness floats through the house; Roasting turkey, cranberry sauce.  The list grows longer.  One of my special favorites, besides seeing my favorite elf, cozy by the fireside, with a naughty grin on her face…ah, lost my train of thought….oh, yeah, food.  Cornbread dressing!

Some call it stuffing, but I never stuff a turkey, so I call it dressing.  Dates back to my childhood, over half a century ago.  I picture my mother, who miraculously never weighted more than 105 pounds, in the uncomfortably warm kitchen, Vogue perfect, a starched apron completing the ensemble.  The oven going.  The stovetop, with half a dozen steaming pans, and on the counter a cast iron skillet loaded with day-old cornbread.  Why day-old instead of freshly baked?  Moisture, my lad.  Cornbread that’s a tad on the dry side soaks up the goodness of all that’s to follow.

It all starts with cornbread. Here’s my recipe, but feel free to use another.  The important things are to make it a day ahead and to make enough!  This is a single recipe that I use to make dressing that feeds 6-8.

2 Cups cornmeal (I use organic, non-genetically modified.  Just make sure it is a normal grind, not finely ground)
1/4 Cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder (non-aluminum)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 Cup milk
1/4 Cup vegetable oil
2 egg whites, or 1 whole egg, beaten

Heat oven to 400ºF (200ºC).  Heavily grease an iron skillet or 8x9 inch pan.  Put the pan in the oven to heat while you mix the cornbread.

Combine the dry ingredients. Stir in the wet ingredients, mixing only until the dry ingredients are moist.  Do not over-mix.

Remove the pan from the oven, pour in the batter, and put the pan back in the pre-heated oven.  Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Once you have the cornbread, the rest is a cinch.

Prepare the vegetables:



1 1/2 Cups sliced celery
1 1/2 Cups roughly chopped onions
1 Carrot, shredded
1 1/2 sticks butter
2 Cans or 1 32 oz carton organic chicken broth

Melt the butter in a skillet, add the vegetables and stir.  Cook only until the vegetables are just soft.

While the vegetables are cooking, in a saucepan, heat the chicken broth and reduce by half.

Crumble the cornbread into a large bowl.  Add the cooked vegetables and mix lightly, being careful not to pack down the mixture.  Moisten with the reduced chicken broth and toss.  Do not let the mixture get soggy. Taste and add more broth or melted butter if you wish.

Put the dressing mixture in an ovenproof dish and bake at 350ºF (180ºC) until the tops of the chunks of dressing begin to brown.

Notice, the dressing is not packed down!


Already have the Turkey carved, the table set? Remove the dressing from the oven and serve with your favorite homemade turkey gravy.

Now that you’ve done your duty, crack open that bottle of bubbly and join your elf by the fireside.  Maybe the guests won’t notice.



Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Saarbrücken Christmas Market by the Castle




Lots of Christmas markets (Weihachtsmarkt) this time of year.  Some last more than a month, others just a few days.  Look around.  You’ll find plenty, big and small, sometimes more than one in the same city.

Here’s a partial list for Rheinland Platz http://www.weihnachtsmarkt-deutschland.de/rheinland-pfalz.html Click on the brown lettering to get the dates for a specific market

And another partial list for Saarland: http://www.weihnachtsmarkt-deutschland.de/saarland.html
Click on the red lettering to get the dates for a specific market.

Weihnachtsmarkt is pronounced Vie-knocks-marked, but in English or German, it’s a wonderful tradition for the holiday season.
 
Unlike the United States, where anything suggesting religion is carefully scrutinized before being beheaded, the Germans are unabashedly fond of Christmas and its many celebratory reincarnations.  Nativity scenes are shamelessly displayed.  Join in the fun, or embrace The Grinch.

Remember, this is Germany.  No matter the occasion, the waft of roasting meats and baking bread lusciously fills the air.  Beer and wine flow freely and the click of heavy mugs lets you know you’re in the right place.  My kind of Christmas celebration.  Vendors line the streets.  Artisans display their wares, with everything from intricate tree ornaments to handsomely carved furniture, olive wood kitchen implements, homemade chocolates, and a thousand other things that suddenly look like a fabulous way to spend money and keep the snarling relatives at bay.




Roasting Chestnuts




Castle is in the far background
In the city of Saarbrücken (Bridge over the Saar River) you have a bunch of choices.  We picked the Weihnachtsmarkt in the plaza of the Saarbrücken Castle.  Is the castle historic?  Yes and no.  Lots of castles on this site, dating back to around 1000 A.D.  Dukes, Duchesses, wars, revolutions saw so many deconstructions and reconstructions that the history is difficult to follow.  The current buildings got a facelift and architectural changes in the late 20th Century and are used as offices by the Saarland government.  Still, they stand straight, white, and with a certain majesty.  The cobblestones are a nice touch and it’s the perfect place for a market, which also wanders down the surrounding streets.




But, no matter which Weihnachtsmarkt I pick, I always find something different, something that strikes me as “Hey, never thought of that.”  In some cases I’m pleased that I never thought of that, but often I’m surprised.  

This time it was hot beer.  Glühbier, it’s called.  The thoughtful folks who provided this warmth on a chilly day in Saarbrücken were Belgian as was the Glühbier.
The beer comes out steaming!

Most of us have sampled Glühwein.  Wine with spices, and sugared, then heated.  You can also get it with a shot of this or that, which is always a good idea, but only if you’ve found another driver for the sleigh.   Even with more alcoholic infusions, I can only take one mug of Glühwein.  A bit sweet for my taste.  But, it does get better with age, so wait five minutes, then have another.


Glühbier is a different beast.  You may think fruit flavored beer is sweet.  Not if it’s Belgian.  They add the fruit flavoring before fermentation, so the sugar from the fruit morphs into real beer, with a fruit flavor.  Heat the fruit beer up and you’ve got Glühbier.  First time I tried it, I was ready for another.  Instantly addictive.  A side effect is that suddenly your other hand feels empty without a Brat.  Easily remedied.


Glühbier!  Succulent, with just a bare bite of bitterness.
One thing I really enjoy about a German Weihnachtsmarkt is the attitude of the people.  Happy.  Smiling.  Hail fellow well met!  You well may wonder about the origin of that greeting from medieval times.  Well, join me for a Glühbier, grab a Wurst and let’s talk about it…





Monday, December 2, 2013

Chipotle Sweet Potatoes - by any other name




Chipotle Sweet Potatoes

The holidays are all over us.  Difficult to believe.  Seems like just yesterday we wore shorts and bright sunshine ruled.  Now scarves ward off the chill.  We stomp our feet to keep warm, and every wanna-be-Santa is duded up in fluffy white and red, shaking a bell, and waiting for the tinkle of coins. Shopping blunts our thoughts.  Putting up the tree is our deepest concern. When?  Where?

Appetites have a way of keeping up with the seasons.  Right now, ribs are not on my hungry mind.  Leaning toward roast this and piping hot that.  Sure, you can do the expected, but that’s always the case, n’est pas? Dried out turkey.  Mystery veggies slathered in mystery, soup-can sauce.

I prefer to explore.  Keep my guests guessing.  Make their taste buds twist and turn as they gulp their way to toxic levels of alcoholic cheer.  

I’m flat out tired of candied sweet potatoes.  Baked, casseroled, dotted with marshmallows, or otherwise subliminally morphed from tuber to dessert.  Sweet Potatoes deserve more respect.  Come on, in North Carolina it’s even the state vegetable.  And all the time, I thought it was barbeque, of the genus grillus hogus.

The question always comes up:  Is a sweet potato a yam?  Yes and no.  Biologically speaking, no.  Food labeling speaking, kinda.  In the U.S., probably because the terms have grown to be synonymous, anything labeled yam must also be labeled sweet potato.  Have a thirst for knowledge?  Pondering more research?  Be my guest.  I wanna talk about cooking.

I rescued this recipe from Bobby Flay, through the internet; but never being content to simply follow a recipe, my wandering mind, like a dog searching for the perfect tree, fabricates my own touches, to try out on unsuspecting, famished friends, often to semi-rave reviews I might add.  Those few friends I have tend to rave a lot anyway.  And sobriety ranks right below celibacy on their what-not-to-do-in-the-nursing-home list.

Chipotle Sweet Potatoes

3 large, robust sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/8 inch thick rounds
4 cups heavy cream
2 heaping Tablespoons from a can of un-drained chipotle peppers
2 heaping Tablespoons minced onions
4 little triangles of white cheese
Salt to taste

The Sauce:

Put the cream, and chipotles in a blender.  Err on the side of chipotle caution.  Blend well.  Add salt to taste and more chipotle if you dare.



In a sauté pan, add a bit of butter and the minced onions.  Cook until limp.  Add the cheese and a cup of the cream mixture.  Stir.  After the cheese melts, add the remainder of the cream mixture. Stir well and warm.



Puttin’ It All Together:

In a baking container of your choosing, put down a layer of sweet potato rounds, then spoon on some sauce.  Add another layer of sweet potato and another layer of sauce, etc., until the baking container is full.  Pour extra sauce over the top.  Cover and bake for an hour to an hour and a half at 375ºF (190ºC).  Check from time to time.  You want the potatoes to be soft, but not falling apart.  Time will vary depending on your oven and how thick you cut the potatoes.

layering

Spreading the sauce
Sweet Potatoes after being covered and baked for 80 minutes.


Uncover the potatoes, increase the heat to 400ºF (200ºC) and cook another 30-40 minutes or until the sauce bubbles and just begins to turn golden.


Voilá!  Easy.  Don’t be surprised if you guests overdose.  You may want to pass out extra napkins.  You know how drunks are.  Just getting them to use forks is a dangerous experiment.