So is the saga of war. Menacing, like the black storm clouds that roll in quickly over the mountains. Suffocating, like the fog that envelopes the trees leaving only vague impressions of branches that sway in an unseen wind. In Italy, near the shores of Lago di Bolsena, he was captured. A prisoner for years, he was transferred from camp to camp across Europe, until, in Poland, he escaped. He traveled through the night, and desperately sought refuge with a sympathetic Polish farmer and his wife during day. He hid among the turnips and carrots in their root cellar as enemy soldiers searched the farm house for escaped prisoners. One day they found him, beat him, and left him in a prison cell to die.
But, lest you think this just a tragic tale of war, let me assure you that it is so much more. It's a story of courage and survival and of the food that connects the two. You see, human kindness stretches far beyond political ties, and this man was strong. Stronger than anyone imagined. He didn't die. And as the years stretched on, he befriended the prison guards, speaking to them in their native language and repairing their watches when they stopped working. In return, they brought him cigarettes and covertly slipped parcels of cabbage leaves tied with string through the cell bars. Like little presents, these cabbage leaves held a sweet surprise. Tiny bits of dark chocolate were hidden inside! On these he survived, and eventually the war came to an end. He was shipped back to America where he received a hero's welcome and a purple heart for his injuries. His wounds began to heal, but the scars ran deep, as all scars of war do. He was deaf in one ear from a muzzle blast that killed the man next to him, and the shrapnel in his leg was encased in bone, forever sealing it in a tomb of his own flesh and blood. He married that girl he loved. And life went on much as it did before the war.
It wasn't until he was very old that his war stories began to emerge. Like tiny bubbles rising to the surface of a boiling pot of water as the tension breaks, so too did his memories surface as his mental resolve - that force which had kept them hidden for so long - began to crumble under the strain of Alzheimer's. Some stories were shocking in the most horrific ways, some were questionably unrealistic, some brought tears to our eyes, and all were absolutely fascinating. He revealed them all on his death bed.
Through out his life my grandfather loved German food and my grandmother happily appeased him, making any number of German dishes. Cabbage and caraway seeds were common players in her kitchen. Sauerkraut and bratwurst, Sauerbraten with mashed potatoes and turnips, fiery horseradish from the garden, and dark chocolate torte with cherries. Perhaps, to him, they symbolized life.
Though he's been gone for many years, I still feel the sting of missing him. On those days I like to get out my grandmother's old recipe box, throw on my apron, and settle into the kitchen. These recipes all came from her collection. She liked to write little notes on the tops of each recipe. "Too Spicy," or "Add Sugar," or Very Good!" or "Ed's Favorite." I think these notes were meant for me. So last week, when the weather was dreary and we were fogged in once again, I got out her cards. They say food unites people. I say food unites us in death and life. When I make these dishes I can almost feel my grandfather sitting across the table, placing a big dollop of spicy horseradish on the side of his plate. I can almost hear his laughter, so infectious, as one of the kids does something silly. And who's to say he's not?
Slow Cooker Sauerbraten
Sauerbraten is slow food at its finest. It marinates for 3 days in the refrigerator and then cooks for 8 hours in the crock pot. It's one of those special meals that you need to plan for. My grandmother always served it on Sunday afternoon. This means you have plenty of time to make the homemade gingersnaps which will thicken the sauce. I like to make the cookies on the same day I stick the roast in the fridge. That way they're good and crunchy and we can snack on the rest throughout the week.
4 lb beef chuck roast
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup dry red wine
1 onion, sliced
1 carrot, sliced
1 celery stalk, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, pressed
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp parsley flakes
1 bay leaf
6 whole peppercorns
4 whole cloves
1/8 tsp ground allspice
1/3 cup ice water
2 Tbsp flour
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp brown sugar
4 homemade gingersnap cookies, crushed (about 1/2 cup crumbs)
additional water or beef broth as needed
Place the meat in a large, resealable bag. In a saucepan combine the vinegar, wine, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, salt, parsley, bay, peppercorns, cloves, and allspice. Heat gently, stirring until the mixture just bubbles. Remove from the heat and steep for 10 minutes. Stir in the ice water and pour over the meat in the bag. Place the meat in the refrigerator to marinate for 3 days, turning the meat once or twice a day.
While the meat is marinating, make the gingersnaps for the sauce. This is the recipe I use.
When ready to cook, remove the meat from the marinade and dry on paper towels. Reserve the marinade. Dredge the meat in the flour and brown in the oil on all sides. Transfer to the slow cooker. Pour the marinade into the pan bring to a simmer, scraping the bits from the bottom of the pan. Pour over the meat in the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours.
Remove the meat to a serving platter and keep warm. Strain the sauce into a large measuring cup and add enough water or beef broth to make 3 cups. Pour the sauce into a saucepan and whisk in the brown sugar and gingersnap crumbs. Heat, stirring constantly until thickened. Slice the meat and pour over some of the sauce. Serve the remaining sauce at the table.
Mashed Potatoes and Turnips
I prefer to make my mashed potatoes in a food mill. I love the creamy fine texture it produces. But my grandfather loved his potatoes lumpy. In fact, he was in charge of mashing them so he could make them just as he liked. So, for him, I make these lumpy. Just the way I remember.
3 medium russet potatoes
1 medium turnip
1/2 cup milk
2 Tbsp butter
1/2 tsp salt
pepper to taste
Wash and peel the potatoes and turnip. Cut the potatoes into large chunks, cut the turnip into small chunks. Place in a sauce pan with enough salted water to just cover. Bring to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes or until soft. Drain and rinse the pan. Place the pan back on the heat and add the butter and milk. Heat until the milk is steaming and the butter is melted. Add the cooked potatoes and turnip and mash by hand. If the mixture is too dry add a splash more milk. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper if needed. Serve with the Sauerbraten and its gravy.
In my grandmother's recipe box I found a card about horseradish. It said, "To those who know it well, horseradish is more than a spice. It is a tonic and friend, sure to freshen the senses and brighten the eyes." I'm sure this is true, as my grandfather had a twinkle in his eyes that was brighter than the stars in the night sky.
a 6 - 8 inch chunk of horseradish root
salt and sugar
Peel the rough, brown skin from the horseradish root and cut it into small chunks. Place it in the bowl of a food processor and pour in enough vinegar to come half way up the horseradish. Add equal amounts of sugar and salt to taste (I use approx 1/2 tsp of each for a 6 - 8 inch piece of horseradish.) Process until finely chopped but not milky.
Red Cabbage with Pears
There was a bosc pear tree growing in my grandparent's garden. It didn't produce much, growing in our harsh, dry climate, but the pears it did produce were sweet and tender, the result of a lot of hard work on the part of the tree. My grandmother made this with cabbage and pears straight from her garden.
3 Tbsp butter
1/2 an onion, sliced
1 small red cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
1 bosc pear, cored and thinly sliced
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onions and a large pinch of salt. Cook until they just begin to soften (3 - 4 minutes). Don't let the butter or onions burn. Add the cabbage and another pinch of salt. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the pears, sugar and vinegar. Cover and cook until the pears are just soft, 3 - 4 more minutes. Taste for seasoning and add additional salt if necessary.