I love food. I love everything about it: contemplating different things to eat, finding new and fabulous restaurants, trawling through grocery stores and farmers’ markets for bargains, borrowing and adapting recipes (and creating my own), spending hours in the kitchen whipping up something wonderful and nourishing, sharing my creations with family and friends, and experiencing terrific tastes, be they old school or brand new. Healthy food is necessary for life itself, but to me, the enjoyment of it is equally important. Which is why modern-day life, with its nonstop rat race, bothers me.
For most of us, preparing food is about grabbing what’s on hand, getting takeout, or making meals with little consideration beyond how much time is involved. Home cooking, for many, is now the combination of some fresh ingredient with processed items. It’s a shame, and on some levels, it’s a sin.
That is why I take a thoughtful approach to food. There are so many things to consider: What is in the cupboard? What is in season? What are the most healthy, planet-friendly choices available and how do I fit them into my schedule? What do I want to communicate through this meal? Those questions and more are what we will explore in Food for Thought. Each week, we’ll talk food — recipes, trends, nutrition, time savers — and share stories in an effort to nourish ourselves and those we feed, body and soul.
I can sense people scratching their heads over sharing stories. Folks, it’s all about sharing stories. Think back to your favorite foods from childhood. Now, when that picture forms in your mind — perhaps you’re recalling the aroma from Mom’s freshly baked apple pie or Uncle Sanjay’s pungent curry or Granddad’s lox and eggs — I’ll bet it includes some great story that has lived with you for decades. Right now, I’m flashing on my late father’s creamy bread and raisin pudding. The scent of it would fill the house with sweetness and fill my heart with the knowledge that I was safe and loved and warm. Thinking of it today reminds me of chats Dad and I had as he gently heated milk and measured spices and passed down his thoughts on the virtues of day-old bread. And when I prepare it for my spouse and son, they get to feel what I felt all those years ago — love. It’s all about sharing.
And sharing is something today’s fast-paced world needs. These days, too many of us primarily communicate with others via telephones and computers. It’s the perfect time to carve out time to share food — and the stories it tells — with others in the real world. Before you know it, you will build community, revere old memories and make new ones while enjoying a welcome respite to the rush of daily life.
Although I have lived in many places, my present home is in Baltimore, the city of my birth. Food plays an important role in this area, thanks to our proximity to the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay and to the traditions of the many immigrant cultures that bring the charm to what we call Charm City. The fast pace of modern life has caused many people to ignore a lot of the wonderful stories of old, but many Baltimore residents hold fast to certain traditions, and at certain times, those traditions remind us of who we really are and what is truly important to us. Autumn is one of those times.
From the moment that summer’s heat started to recede, my mind has wandered to one of life’s greatest thrills: sour beef and dumplings. Baltimore’s German community brought this delectable treat to these shores in the mid-19th century. Each fall since then, sour beef (sauerbraten in German) has been a staple dish in this city. Today, churches throughout the German and Polish neighborhoods in East Baltimore hold sour-beef suppers where adults and kids, teens and seniors, rich and poor folk gather to break bread, share community, and mark the start of autumn. The number of churches participating in this ritual, sadly, is waning, but traditional sauerbraten fests are still hotly anticipated by many good Baltimoreans. And for good reason: Imagine tender slices of succulent, long-marinated, simmered beef served with fluffy potato dumplings in a sweet and tangy sauce made with gingersnaps, and imagine tables filled with people laughing and dining together. It’s more than good eating. It’s good living.
Time may not permit everyone to scout out an old German church for a get-together; it certainly does not for me, at least not this year. But there is no reason not to share this particularly pleasurable Baltimore tradition with your family and friends. To mark my birthday today, I am giving the gift of sour beef and laughter to my nearest and dearest. You should do the same.
In that spirit, here is the recipe I am using. It comes from my spouse’s late Uncle John, a good third-generation German-Irish Baltimorean and a thoughtful, loving cook whom I miss terribly. I have reworked this particular recipe to use beef chunks rather than a whole beef rump or sirloin tip, which makes it a wee bit faster to marinate and cook than traditional sauerbratens. John gave me this recipe (among many) as a gift when I was newly married; please accept it as a gift from me to you.
Timesaver’s Sour Beef and Dumplings
4 lbs beef (cut into 2″ cubes)
1 1/2 cups vinegar
1 cup dry red wine
3/4 cup water
3 medium onions, sliced
2 stalks celery, sliced
2 carrots, sliced
10 whole peppercorns
10 whole cloves
3 bay leaves
1 lg onion, sliced
2 cups sugar
3/4 lb gingersnaps (more or less)
3 tbsp canola or safflower oil
10 potatoes, peeled and cubed
4 cups all-purpose flour
3 tsp baking powder
Place the beef cubes in a non-metallic bowl large enough to allow the liquid to cover the meat. In a separate mixing bowl, vinegar, wine, water, onions, celery, carrots, pepper, cloves, bay leaves, sugar and salt and pour the mixture over the beef cubes. Cover the bowl and allow the marinade to refrigerate overnight. (Some folks let the meat sit for as long as two or three days, or even for four days if they want to make the beef really sour; two days should be sufficient for chunked beef. If you plan to marinade for multiple days, be sure to stir the chunks once each day.)
When you have deemed marination complete, transfer the beef cubes from the marinade to another bowl or to a sheet of wax paper and dust them with a little flour. (Be sure to save the marinade — you will need it shortly.)
Melt the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the beef and cook until the chunks are browned. Pour in one cup of the reserved marinade along with some of the onions, celery and carrots. Cover the pot tightly and simmer for about one hour or until the beef is tender. Do check the Dutch oven from time to time; if the liquid level is lower than about a half-inch deep, add more marinade.
While the beef is simmering, it is time to prepare the dumplings. Place the potato cubes into a pot, cover with water, and boil them until soft. Remove the potatoes from the water and place them into a mixing bowl. (Meanwhile, re-fill the potato pot with water and put on to boil.)
Back to the spuds: Mash the potatoes and allow them to cool. Add the salt and eggs and mix well. In a separate bowl, sift flour and baking powder together and then slowly blend the mixture into the potatoes. Now, dust your hands with flour, pinch off pieces of potato mixture and roll them into balls that are about one inch in diameter.
When your pot of water is at a rolling boil, drop in the balls. They should sink to the bottom and will rise to the top of the water to signify that they are ready.
We return to the sauerbraten: When the beef is sufficiently tender, remove it from the Dutch oven and place it onto a warm serving platter — keep it warm. Take your ginger snaps and break them into little pieces. Stir them into the liquid in the Dutch oven. Reduce the heat to low and allow to simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the resulting gravy is thick and smooth.
Once your gravy is done, add the dumplings (sans water). Then ladle the dumplings and gravy over the beef chunks on your serving platter. Garnish with fresh parsley. Makes eight very happy servings.
Food for Thought ruminates on the world of food – recipes, dining out, health, trends and more – from a progressive, counterculture perspective. Wanna share recipes or tips? Send email!