Recreating Germany (on a Plate)

Last night, I returned from a work-related trip to the Motherland.  While my family and I have spent a fair amount of time in Germany, especially growing up and to visit with my grandparents, this was my first trip to Berlin.  So, after two and a half days of full-day meetings, I was ready to eat my touristy way through the city.

German fare is not for the faint (or cholesterol-sensitive) heart.  Germans love pretzels and croissants for breakfast and huge plates of (fried) pork schnitzel and french fries for dinner.  For lunch, they might dig into a huge plate of spaetzle (for the non-acquainted, a soft, egg-based noodle), and wash it down with a massive mug of beer. They have a well established “coffee break” around 4pm, consisting of a strong cup of coffee or a steaming mug of hot chocolate, accompanied by cakes and cookies.  (Side note: during one meeting, our German hosts apologized for the “cake and cookie situation.”  I thought maybe they were apologizing for adding to our expanding waistlines.  Turns out, they thought the variety of cookies and cakes that had been served was sub-par.  I guess eight different types wasn’t enough?!) In between spaetzle and schnitzel, a Berliner might dig into a “currywurst” – a deep fried sausage topped with a mixture of ketchup and curry powder.  If you feel the need for some veggies, your plate may come with a side of cabbage.  Or maybe a couple of cucumbers with some mayonnaise.**

Obviously, after I got home from the airport last night, I just had to re-create some of this for the Husband.

Slow Cooked Pork with Spaetzle and Braised Red Cabbage

  • Our go-to slow cooker pork recipe and ingredients, minus the mozzarella and arugula
  • Spaetzle (or any egg noodle)
  • For the Cabbage:
    • 1 small head red cabbage, quartered and thinly sliced
    • 2 tablespoons butter
    • 1/2 onion, chopped
    • 1 green apple, peeled and cut into thin slices
    • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
    • 1-2 tablespoons honey
    • 1 teaspoons salt
    • optional: a dash of caraway seeds
  1. In the morning, get the pork cooking.  Refer back to our go-to recipe, and only go through step two (putting all the ingredients in the crock pot and setting it on low for 8-9 hours).
  2. About an hour and a half before dinner time, get your cabbage going.  Immerse the cabbage (cored and sliced) in a bowl of cold water.
  3. Heat the butter in a large dutch oven over low heat.  Add onions and cook until golden.
  4. Drain the cabbage slices and then add to the pot, along with the sliced apple, the red wine vinegar, honey, salt and (if  you like) caraway seeds.
  5. Cover the pot and cook over medium-low heat for about 60-90 minutes, or until the cabbage is soft.  Do not cook for too long – it will either turn to mush or turn bitter.
  6. About 15 minutes or so before serving, get water boiling for your spaetzle or egg noodles.
  7. Serve the spaetzle topped with pork and a side of cabbage.  Guten Appetit!
das schmeckt gut!
das schmeckt gut!

The Verdict:

Our pork (really, the Husband’s) is a go-to and there’s a reason why: it’s delicious.  Having spaetzle (especially fresh, which I carried on the plane back with me!) was a special treat, and took me right into my mom’s and grandmother’s kitchen.  This was true comfort cooking.  I’ve never made cabbage before, and to be honest, this recipe was maybe a touch sweet.  That being said, it provided the perfect tang and balance to the rest of our German meal!  The big bonus here: plenty of leftovers, which will serve us well this (short) Thanksgiving week.

** My description of standard German fare isn’t entirely fair, to be honest.  Germany – and especially Berlin – seems to be embracing the local and organic food scene a la Brooklyn 2009, with “healthy” cafes popping up everywhere.  I also saw a slew of vegetarian and even vegan restaurants, as well as restaurants from every culinary tradition one could imagine.  After all, Berlin is, at heart, an incredibly dynamic city with a very young and hip feel, even as it continues to sit at the heart of an incredible amount of history.**

Winging It: Wild Mushroom & Shallot Quiche

After an amazing weekend with (both sets of) parents, I had a glorious day off for Columbus Day.  I had big plans: catching up on bills, cleaning the house, doing laundry, switching out the fall clothes, grocery shopping, hitting the gym and of course, cooking.  Instead, I watched all eight episodes of Outlander (thanks, Mom).  And then I did a few things on the list, namely, grocery shop and cook dinner.  What follows is the first time I think I’ve ever baked anything without at least loosely following a recipe.  And it was good!

Wild Mushroom & Shallot Quiche

  • 1 store-bought pie crust, brought to room temperature
  • olive oil
  • 2 shallots, sliced thinly
  • 1/2 red onion, sliced thinly
  • 2 cartons mushrooms, sliced (I used a mix of wild mushrooms and baby bellas)
  • 1 cup or so light cream
  • 1 cup or so shredded gruyere
  • 3 eggs
  • salt, pepper & of course, crushed red pepper
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Unroll the pie dough and press into a pie plate (I used one with the bottom that slides up and out); discard excess dough.  Because it is a filled pie, no need to pre-bake or prick with a fork (more on that later).
  3. In a large skillet, heat the oil, and then cook the onions and shallots down, until translucent.  Mix in the mushrooms and cook those down, as well.  Add some pepper and some crushed red pepper, if you’re into the heat.
  4. On the side, lightly beat together three eggs and about a cup of light cream (really, anything with at least a little bit of fat will do – whole milk, half and half, etc.  Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Pour the cooked mushroom, shallot and onion mix into the pie crust and spread evenly.  Pour the egg and cream mixture over the mushrooms; spread evenly.
  6. Top with a generous handful of shredded gruyere; make sure to press at least some of it into the mixture below.
  7. Bake at 375 for about 30-35 minutes, or until the eggs are cooked all the way through.  (Note: depending on how much crust is showing, you may want to place aluminum foil strips or a pie crust protector over the edges, so they do not burn.)
  8. Serve with a light salad!
look, ma, no recipe!
look, ma, no recipe!

The Verdict: I’m pretty pleased with myself, another go-to!  This was delicious, and the leftovers will keep for lunch.  And there are almost endless variations to this – swap in and out various vegetables, or add bacon or pancetta, truly an expansive range of possibilities.  The Husband, despite not liking eggs, also declared it tasty – though he did comment the crust at the bottom was a little soggy in places.  I wonder if this is because the mushrooms let out a bit of moisture as they cooked down further?  Would I have done well to pre-bake or prick the crust, even just a bit?  Welcome feedback from more experienced chefs!

Leftovers & Lunch Meat.

Sad but true: this week has been brutal, hours-wise.  Neither the Husband nor I have been home before 9 or 10 pm all week, which means we’ve been living off of leftovers and lunch meat.  The lentil soup, the sweet potato curry, and even the chili from last week are still paying dividends.  I’m proud to say I haven’t actually had to buy lunch, either.  (Not sure that’s true for the Hubs.)

Tomorrow night, we head to my in-laws’ for a parents’ weekend – my parents are coming, too!  We’ll be back Sunday night, which is when I’ll plan on making the mushroom quiche I bought groceries for earlier this week…

(Mostly) Healthy Living: Lentil Soup with Swiss Chard

Before my parents moved out of our childhood home a year or so ago, my mom spent about a year prior to that downsizing all of our (material) things, including her collection of cookbooks.  Which means somehow I ended up with the 1998 Weight Watchers New Complete Cookbook.  And I’ve actually cooked out of it…which leads us to tonight’s meal.

Spoiler alert: this (adapted) recipe is a go-to in our house.  I make it when I’m feeling run down, tired or feel like I really just need a big bowl of nutrition.  (Yes, that is a feeling).  I’ve made it with all different types of broth and greens; I think the combination of Swiss chard and beef broth is the best.

Lentil Soup with Swiss Chard

  • olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 6 cups beef broth (veggie, mushroom, chicken, beef, even mixed with water – whatever you have.)
  • 1 cup dried lentils, picked over, rinsed and drained
  • 1 big bunch Swiss chard, leaves shredded (I like the red Swiss chard best, though we’ve also used mustard greens, collard greens, kale and even spinach.  The only big miss was the mustard greens.)
  • handful cumin
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • crushed red pepper
  • juice from 1 or two lemons
  • Optional: cilantro, parmesan cheese
  1. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil and then add onions.  Cook for about 4-5 minutes; add garlic.  Keep stirring so the garlic doesn’t burn, and then add broth and lentils.  Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer until lentils are cooked through (about 35 minutes).
  2. Add the Swiss chard, cumin, crushed red pepper, and salt and pepper.  Cook until chard wilts, above 5-6 minutes.  Stir in lemon juice.  Eyeball the broth – make sure there’s enough in there to meet your needs!
  3. Serve with cilantro and – if you’re feeling decadent – parmesan cheese.
does everything around here have cilantro? apparently so.
apparently, everything around here features cilantro.

The Verdict:

I made tonight’s version with a combination of chicken and mushroom broth, which didn’t quite pack the same punch as beef broth.  But it was delicious, all the same, and makes plenty of leftovers (again, if you’re feeding only two people).  And it would have been super healthy, too, had the Husband not had his with a side of…mini frozen pizzas.  You win some, you lose some.  At least we got that bowl of nutrition.

Old faithful: Unbelievably Good Chili.

I think almost anyone who spends any time in the kitchen has at least one or two “go-to” meals.  This is the meal you cook without ever consulting a recipe book, the meal you prepare when you know you need it to turn out well.  My “old faithful” is decidedly low brow, but simple to make, healthy, and (dare I say), delicious.  It’s chili.

This recipe is adapted – but still largely based – on my very first cookbook.  On a last minute trip to BJ’s Wholesale club the week before I went to college for the first time, my mom bought me The Complete Idiot’s Guide to 20-Minute Meals.  This book, with its step by step instructions, reliance on simple ingredients, and helpful hints, first convinced me that I could make something edible.  More than ten years later, this cookbook’s pages are falling out; they’re splashed with food stains; they’re dog-eared.  The book naturally opens to page 117 – the page marked “Unbelievably Good Chili.”

I will never get rid of it.

Varina’s Go-to Chili

  • 1 large can diced tomatoes (you can buy with chilis in them to spice it up!)
  • 1 lb ground beef (lean and mean!)
  • 1 can refried beans (non-fat works perfectly – this is the secret ingredient!)
  • 1 can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • Large red onion, sliced/diced
  • Olive oil
  • Jalapeno or poblano pepper, diced
  • 1 can corn, drained and rinsed
  • Chili powder
  • Crushed red pepper flakes
  • Cumin
  • Salt and pepper
  • Feel free to twist it up – I like to add – tomato paste, green peppers, other types of beans
  • Toppings: Sour cream, cilantro, green onions, cheddar cheese, raw onions etc.
  1. In a large dutch oven or pot over medium-high heat, cook the onions down in olive oil until they’re translucent. Pop in a dash of salt and pepper.
  2. Brown the meat in the onions – making sure not to burn the meat. Especially if the meat is super lean (healthy as possible!), make sure it crumbles all the way (otherwise it gets clumps together and is pretty tasteless.)
  3. Add the diced tomatoes, corn, kidney beans and then the refried beans. Mix it all the way through. (Note: if you’re using tomato paste, put that in first so it has time to develop flavor).
  4. Cook down for about 15-20 minutes.  (This is a good time to get your cornbread going!)
  5. I like to add the jalapenos/poblanos/chopped green pepper with a few minutes to go before serving time, so they retain a bit of crunch.
  6. Add spices – a good handful of chili powder, about half a handful cumin. Salt and pepper to taste. Mix it up and let cook through another couple minutes.
  7. Serve with toppings!
IMG_0152
deliciousness in a bowl.

Doctored cornbread muffins

  • 1 box Jiffy cornbread mix
  • one egg
  • splash milk (use slightly less than the back of the box calls for, to make up for the moisture in the creamed corn)
  • can creamed corn
  • diced jalapeno
  1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.  Line a muffin tray with paper liners (Tip: if you spray them lightly with non-stick spray, your cornbread won’t stick to the liner when it’s done.)
  2. Mix all of your ingredients together in a small bowl and pour into the muffin tins, until each cup is about 2/3 full.
  3. Bake for about 15-20 minutes.
IMG_0153
pink liners courtesy of my sister…

The Verdict:

See title of blog post.  Enough said!

(No, seriously.  And the bonus is, you can generally make this from ingredients you can keep for a long, long time – ground beef in the freezer, cans of beans/corn/tomatoes in the cabinet.  The fresh ingredients are an added bonus, but don’t make or break the dish.  And it makes a TON of leftovers, if you’re feeding only two people.)