Eat Me. Drink Me.

Why We Eat. Why We Drink. Why We Write.

Month: August, 2009

Eating in German (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister


I grew up speaking in German, and I grew up eating anything but.  Schnitzel, sauerkraut, bratwurst?  Never.  If it was puddled in butter, wrapped in gravy, or leaking grease, my mother did not make it.  I remember her once exclaiming about German food, “It’s all so heavy!  They even cook the peas in cream!”  So I grew up eating couscous and bulgur, slow-cooked stews, stir-fry, and salmon.  But not a single Spätzle graced our table.

This was all ok with me.  My father is from Germany, so my rare cravings for Würstchen and Läberkäs were satisfied on our trips to the country every two years or so.  And while my brothers seemed never to get enough schnitzel (seriously, never enough), I was maxed out on potatoes by day three.

Still, some of my strongest (and fondest) childhood memories center around German food.  My grandfather owns a piece of property on the Schwäbische Alb, a low mountain range in the South of Germany comparable to the weathered Appalachians.  Every available Pfister would gather, and we’d have a bonfire and roast as many types of wurst as Aldi and Lidl had on sale.  There would be loaves of fresh, crusty bread, potato salad done in the German style with vinegar, oil, salt, Kräutersalz, and onion, Fleishsalat (strips of bologna mixed with mayonnaise, gouda, eggs, and pickle), cucumber salad, and beer – lots of beer.  For the kids, there was süsser Sprudel and gelber Sprudel, both sweetened types of seltzer water.

Aichland Eating

The grown ups would sit around the fire and gossip, while we cousins ran around the woods building houses out of bark, moss, and small stones for elves or catching crickets in the sunny neighboring field.  Bocce ball was popular with everyone, and for some inexplicable reason, the kids fought over the right to mow the lawn with a rickety, unmotorized push-mower with scissoring blades.  We never left the Eichland, the Land of Oaks, until late at night and not until someone had brought out a guitar and started a round of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”

Bocce Ball

Then there were my uncle Helfried’s tacos.  I know, tacos are not German.  But when you get a gaggle of Very German people together who have only heard that Mexico is a country by hearsay, and you let those people make tacos – tacos become German.

Friedel, as we all call him, is a legendary cook – though incidentally also the cook who elicited the peas and cream exclamation from my mother.  The beef filling he makes is simply simmered with oil and a Maggi taco seasoning packet (shh), but so silky and rich and deliciously bad for you.  We make crêpes instead of tortillas or taco shells, which used to be impossible to find in Germany (I had an uncle who once took back boxes of taco shells in his suitcase after visiting us).  The crêpes, slightly sweet, soak up the juices from the meat and other typical taco fillings, like tomatoes, lettuce, sour cream, and cheese, making them messy, but wonderful things to eat.

German Tacos

And how could I talk about eating in German without talking about Kaffee und Kuchen?  No matter what you’ve eaten or when you last ate, you will, at 3 o’clock, stop what you’re doing, go home or to a coffee house and have a cup of coffee and a slice of cake.

My grandfather lives in what the Germans call a Hof, a small cul-de-sac lined by houses.  We can’t walk in or out of the Hof without my grandfather’s neighbor, Emma, sticking her head out the window for a little chat.  Wilson-style, our only interactions are through that window, and we aren’t entirely sure if she has legs.  On more than one occasion, Emma has passed us a home made cake through the window to eat for Kaffee und Kuchen.  Her signature cake is a cheesecake made with Quark, a creamy curd cheese, and mandarin oranges.  The taste of that cake and the smell of coffee still filters through my memory and the yellow-brown curtains and onto the ageless dining room table in my grandfather’s house.

Kaffe und Kuchen

For quantity (and baking brilliance), however, no one rivals Annagrette Weber, a woman to whom the phrase, “No more cake, please,” means nothing.  On a recent visit to Rolf and Annagrette’s house, Annagrette said, “Oh, I was feeling tired today, so I didn’t make that many cakes.”  My mother and I heaved a sigh of relief, only to round the corner to find the table decked for four with one chocolate cherry cake, a fruit torte, a linsertorte, a butter cake, and lemon-quark bars.  “You have to have a piece of each.”  Yes, Annagrette.

In the spirit of Annagrette, I’m going to try to eat as much as I can of as many different things as I can.  And maybe by the time I leave, I won’t just be speaking in German, but eating in German too.

Schwäbischer Kartoffelsalat (Schwabian Potato Salad):
This recipe was one of my grandmother’s.  It’s incredibly easy – the south German take on that hot-bacon-chives-vinegar business you’ll find if you try to look up German potato salad online.  The tricky thing, though, is that one of the central (er – only) seasonings in this dish is sold strictly in Germany.  Which makes this recipe hard for you to make at home.  The spices used in the Kräutersalz are as follows: salt, parsley, dried onion, pepper, oregano, dried garlic, celery seed, and rosemary.  So you might be able to recreate the seasoning following that list and using your mortar and pestle – or you can mess around with some spices of your own.

Cook potatoes in boiling water, then peel them, and slice them thinly.  Coat them with vegetable oil – mom says, “Don’t be skimpy” and gives you a hard look.  Add vinegar, sugar, salt, 1/2 cup or so of vegetable broth, and Kräutersalz to taste.  My grandmother used to use white vinegar thinned with water, but my mother suggests using seasoned rice vinegar, since it’s already so mild and has a bit of sugar in it – and American potatoes aren’t as sweet as German potatoes.  Allow potato salad to cool before eating.  Or don’t, and eat it warm.

Opa on the Aichland

Single-Serving Life (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

It’s been too long.  Sorry.  I’ve been working nonstop and traveling on top of that.  My life feels a little like the other Tyler Durden’s:  “Everywhere I travel, tiny life. Single-serving sugar, single-serving cream, single pat of butter. The microwave Cordon Bleu hobby kit. Shampoo-conditioner combos, sample-packaged mouthwash, tiny bars of soap.”  I’ve spent so much time on trains and planes and gobbling something up on lunch breaks that I’m not entirely sure what good food is anymore.

Of course, that is a lie.  I’m sitting in a sunny apartment in Cologne, Germany right now, eating a nectarine so juicy that I can’t take a bite without having to quickly lick my fingers before juice runs down my arm.  And last night, for supper, my mother and I had fresh ciabatta from a bakery down the street with lax, cream cheese, stuffed peppers in oil, and cherry tomatoes.  Life is ok.

Sadly, though, these past three weeks, I’ve been eating mostly quick meals – Ramen noodles doused with Sriracha hot sauce, cold leftover lasagna, boxed pizza, takeout.  And as a result, I haven’t really had anything good to write about.  However, now that I have a chance to sit down and think about it, I kind of like eating en route, whether it’s in the car, on a train, or even sitting still in my kitchen while my brain keeps moving.  At least, I like it if I don’t have to do it all the time.  I especially find eating in planes novel.  It’s kind of like a picnic, eating 20,000 feet in the air with no elbow room, watching Star Trek on a six-inch screen, and wrapping a single slab of white cheese from plastic wrap and putting it on a single cracker done up in its own wrapping.  The food may certainly be nothing to write home about, but the ambiance (!)

As I mentioned, I am currently in Cologne, and will be in Germany for the next three weeks, so expect some delicious German food updates.  But for now, I have some jet lag to conquer and some Charles Dickens to read, so I’ll leave you with this still uneaten, though oh-so-enticing-looking roll from my recent flight, wrapped in plastic, of course.

Single Serving Bread

I Came to Picnic (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

4th of July picnic

When the sun is shining and the weather balmy, I enjoy nothing more than packing a picnic basket and a blanket and heading into the great outdoors to eat.  I love eating outside, and since the sun has been generous this summer, we’ve had dinner outside almost every day.  There’s something special, however, about a picnic.  A picnic requires planning, preparation, and packing.  First, you must decide where to go and what to make.  You have to decide whether you’ll be close enough to transport warm food or if your brie will melt before you get where you’re going.  You have to figure out how many utensils and napkins you’ll need, since you can’t just run back to the house to grab them, or which container will work best to sneak red wine into the 4th of July Celebration in Washington DC.

Putting together a picnic basket is one of my favorite pastimes.  Much of this is probably due to my love of cheese and cheese’s conduciveness to being transported in a basket.  But there are a number of other delicious dishes that lend themselves to picnicking – some that aren’t specifically intended for such a meal.

A few weeks ago, Dickinson College (right around the corner from my house) hosted its annual Bluegrass on the Grass festival.  My dad packed up our lawn chairs while I modified a dinner of salmon cakes with fennel slaw for transportation.  I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m not very good at frying things (a great loss), so my salmon patties were less patties than hunks of salmon spiced with lemon, chives, and cayenne and threaded through with grated zucchini.  All for the best, however, since this made them easy to stuff into buns then packed tightly in aluminum foil to retain heat.  I packed the fennel slaw with grainy mustard, mayonnaise, and more lemon in a Tupperware and then threw some Ritz crackers, brie, and leftover chocolate-marshmallow no-bake bars in the basket for good measure.

A delicious picnic, I might say, accented by bluegrass plunking through the warm night.  Even the rustling wind preceding rain turned into a friendly shake as we sipped hot, milky coffee out of a thermos.  Around us, hundreds of other happy eaters with bins of pretzels, take-out Thai, or ham sandwiches swayed in time to Cats in the Skillet until the first fat raindrops began to fall.

Picnics don’t have to be in the midst of a crowd or backed by music or be complicated in order to be delightful.  One of my favorite picnics involved a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple, and some string cheese.  An old friend, who I don’t see often, and I were hiking around one of the trails in Pennsylvania – one that, growing up, I had never known about.  We had just climbed past a waterfall to the top of the mountain, and at its peak were a series of cliffs with perfect hand and footholds for bouldering.  We’d race each other to the top of different promontories or dare each other to go higher, and then at the summit of one giant rock with a flat, sloping top, we sat in the crisp January sun and looked out over Cumberland Valley, eating the food he’d packed in his backpack.

A picnic brings a new dimension to what food already accomplishes – drawing people together.  When we experience a change of locale, a new scenery that doesn’t have to be as stunning as a bird’s eye view over the mountains but can be as simple as a big, shady tree, we experience our food in a new way as well.  That strawberry is fresher, sweeter, richer.  Or perhaps we have just become more aware of its taste because our senses have been heightened by our new surroundings.  Vision and taste awakened, we begin to see our picnic partners in a different light as well.  We really listen, because our bodies are alert to the changes.  We cannot slip into the unremarkable safety of our everyday encounters.

Maybe this is a highly romanticized view of eating outdoors.  I will accept that criticism.  But I will also defend my beliefs that changing our eating routine keeps us aware of what we eat and who we’re with.  It keeps our relationships from stagnating.

A Picnic Guide:

Sandwiches make great picnic centerpieces, and I’ve been doing a lot of sandwich experimenting lately, so there should soon be a blog post with plenty of ideas.  If you don’t feel like making whole sandwiches, just pack a baguette, pita, or crackers and bring cheeses, hummus, tapenades, or cold cuts.  I like to have snack-y veggies and fruits on hand, like cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, melon, or berries.  Small Tupperware containers make it easy to pack coleslaw or potato salad.  Other pre-packaged items, such as chips, salsas, and dips are easy sides.  Most hot meats will still taste good cold, like chicken wings, baked ham, or turkey.  These are great to shred or slice and make into salads or sandwiches.  The options really are endless, especially if your destination isn’t too far away, and many entrees can be modified to become picnic-friendly.

Here is the recipe for an eggplant tapenade that I made recently for the aforementioned 4th of July celebration in Washington DC.  It even got good reviews from a non-eggplant eater.

Eggplant and Sun-Dried Tomato Spread:
(Adapted from Gourmet July 2009)
1 head garlic
6 1/2 tbsp olive oil, divided
2 1/2 lb eggplant
1/2 c oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup chopped basil
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1. Preheat oven to 400 with rack in middle
2. Cut off and discard top of garlic head to expose cloves.  Brush with olive oil.  Wrap in foil and roast until tender, about 45 min.  Cool to warm, then squeeze garlic cloves from skins into a small bowl
3. Cut eggplant into 1/2 inch pieces and toss with 1 1/12 tsp salt in colander.  Let drain 30 minutes.  Squeeze eggplant with a kitchen towel to remove liquid
4. Heat olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat.  Saute eggplant (in batches) until tender.
5. Add eggplant to garlic and mash together.  Stir in sun-dried tomatoes, parsley, basil, lemon juice, and 3/4 tsp pepper.  Season with salt and drizzle with tomato oil.