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Food for Thought: Thinking, Eating, Living, and Sour Beef

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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

Ingredients

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)
salt
pepper
3 tbsp canola or safflower oil

for dumplings

10 potatoes, peeled and cubed
4 cups all-purpose flour
3 tsp baking powder
2 eggs
salt

Procedures

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.

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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!

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About NR Davis

  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    Food for thought, indeed – what a wonderful idea for a series, and a wonderful article to start it with. I share many of your feelings toward food and agree that genuine home cooking is priceless and something we should all strive to put back into our lives. I look forward to more of these articles!

  • http://ezsgblog.com/vtdawson/index.php Bennett

    Wow, what a fantastic recipe! If I wanted to use a larger hunk of beef, what would I do different for the marinade?

    Simple a longer period of time?

    Thanks for this Ms Davis. I look forward to serving it to my family during the holidays.

    Cheers!

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    More beef? More gravy! If you are increasing the amount of beef by, say, 50 percent (using six pounds as opposed to four), increase the marinade ingredients similarly (although season to taste, not by amount). I would recommend doubling the dumplings recipe; you can never have enough.

    By the way, today’s SB dinner was AWESOME. :)

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    Another thought occurs: If you are going to be cooking a LOT of beef, I suggest marinating and preparing it separate 4-lb sections. Also, if you opt to use an entire roast as opposed to beef cubes, increase your simmering time to three hours or until the meat becomes fork-tender.

  • Anthony Grande

    I always thought that you were a vegetarian, Natalie.

  • Bennett

    “if you opt to use an entire roast”

    Yeah, that’s what I was getting at! Thanks!!!

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    Then you thought wrong, Mr. Grande. I have never labeled myself a vegetarian. Yes, I prepare and enjoy many vegetarian meals, and there have been times when I have sworn off meat completely, but that cheeseburger craving sometimes will not be denied. Red meat is a *very* occasional treat for me.

  • RogerMDillon

    “Then you thought wrong, Mr. Grande.”

    Can someone put that on a bumper sticker of t-shirt? You’d sell a ton of them here.

  • Anthony Grande

    Hey Rog, I didn’t know that I met so much to you that you would put my name on the back of your car or on your chest.

  • RogerMDillon

    Are you kidding? Imagine how much money there could be made from the vast number of bloggers who agree with the sentiment, “Then you thought wrong, Mr. Grande.” And the beauty of it is that it applies to every argument you take part in.

    To help with my business proposal, can I see responses from anyone who would buy a “Then you thought wrong, Mr. Grande” item. Natalie, can have a free one since it is her quote.

    This could generate more comments than the 100 greatest guitarists.

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    That may be true, but I feel I have to stand up and put a halt to slamming Mr. Grande. Remember, personal attacks are not allowed.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Oh, Natalie, you’re putting recipes in each article? I think I’m falling in love with you. I hope that’s okay.

    Seriously, I’m going to have to print this out and give it a try. Thanks!

  • Anthony Grande

    Roger, I still do not see why I am so important to you that you are so anxious to wear my name on your chest or on the back of your car.

    Sure it might be funny to some people here to wear it (but they are only internet people, they can’t see what you wear!) but your “buddies that you watch football with” will think you are an obsessed dumbass when you show up with a shirt like that.

  • Anthony Grande

    Oh yeah, I am very honored that you think a site about me will generate more comments than that Guitar site. Isn’t there like 2,000 comments on that site? You really think that one about me would be more?

    I will wager with you. You post the thread and we’ll see how high the numbers get.

    And anyone who calls it a personal attack to blog about someone, it is o.k. I will not press charges.

    Go for it!

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    Love is in sadly short supply, Mr. Winn, so I’ll take whatever portion comes my way — from a good person, natch — with undying gratitude.

    I don’t know if I’ll have recipes in every installment, but most of them will. Let me know how your sour beef turns out.

  • Dan

    Recipe sounds good! The potato dumplings are new to me. What is the texture like? Also, did you mean to say they are formed into 3 inch balls? If you meant diameter, they would be about the size of baseballs.

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    The potato dumplings are light and fluffy and SO delicious. Yeah, you’re right, they should be 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. I’ll change that, thanks. (That said, I love big, big dumplings; a dear, departed aunt of mine from Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore used to make a chicken and dumplings featuring 3-inch dumplings. Huge, but fabulous. And not baseball-sized, come on! Man, I miss my auntie.)

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    Scratch that. You wouldn’t know that math was my best subject in school. I’m saying diameter and thinking radius. That’s what happens when one spends her entire day at a keyboard without a break. Let’s say an inch in diameter.

  • Dan

    about golf-ball sized then. That would seem to be about right to get them to cook evenly all the way through. Thanks Ms. Davis.

  • http://thewriterspath.com vikk

    Wonderful! Another great German-style recipe to add to my collection. Thank you! I’ve loved German food ever since I spent four years there as a military brat long, long ago.

  • Eve Gordon

    I grew up in Baltimore too. Every holiday my Grandma made the special trip to Bank St to get her Ostrowskis sausage [ loose] and we stuffed our own. Granny [ my great grandmother ] and made perogies all the time.. some had saurkraut, some potato, some had blueberries. My Mothers side was german.and I fondly remember the smell of sour beef cooking in the winter. Just a couple nights ago we ate at Silver Spring Mining Station and I had their sour beef. It was tender tangy and sweet. So tonight I was scanning the web for a sour beef recipe. One that doesn’t use the Mrs Minnicks sour beef marinade. Thanks for the memories. It sounds like we grew up in very similar familes. My Dad just passed away this past July, my mom passed in 1983. Dad and I always enjoyed good food and swapped recipes all the time. He would have loved this. Thansk again for making me smile and think of my childhood…
    ~Eve~

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    Mmmm… Ostrowski’s Polish sausage… Bank Street holds a very special place in my heart; in fact I will be picking up my Christmas Ostrowski’s soon. Can. Not. Wait. There is nothing like homemade, hand-stuffed sausage. And pierogies! It has been quite a while since I have had some. Thanks for giving me a post-holiday cooking project.

    I am so glad the article brought back wonderful memories for you! For all of you scratching your noggins, Mrs. Minnick’s is a brand of bottled sour-beef mix that is available at some grocery stores. Now, you’ll never hear me say a bad word about Mrs. Minnick, but frankly, she makes sour beef a whole lot less fun.

    Tell me more about this Silver Spring Mining Station. I have family in Silver Spring, MD; is the restaurant there?

  • Dan

    You can experience the Baltimore Sour Beef dinner at Zion church today (4-7) and tomorrow (for lunch). Zion is downtown, across from City Hall Plaza, and is a great historic old church.
    Does anyone know what other churches still have sour beef dinners? Evangelical Lutheran on Eastern Avenue apparently stopped last year. I’d love to get a list of the churches still doing this.

  • http://stephsk8r.blogspot.com Stephanie

    I, too, was born in Baltimore and grew up eating sour beef and dumplings. Our dumplings were much larger, though, and were sliced before being ladled with the gravy. My dad just brought me some sour beef and dumplings that he recently made, and I shared them with my partner. I truly thought it might be the kind of food that you had to grow up with to appreciate, but she loves it. I’ll have to get my dad’s recipe and compare it with yours. Thanks for a great article.

  • http://carol carol

    i would like to know where i can find
    MRS.MINNICK’S SAUERBRATEN MIX
    in the northern part of new jersey ..

    i had it at a friends and i can not find it in any store in new jersey,,, it was so easy to make and wonderful

  • The Sanderson Family

    A few years ago there used to be a house magician there. He performed every week (I think on Thursday evenings).

    The food is really good and the magician was always polite, fun, and entertaining. We called the Silver Spring Mining company in Bel Air, MD and the one on Bel Air Road, but no one seems to have worked there when he was performing there.

    I do remember his last name was odd like Brothe, Greth or something like this.

    Anyone know who he is and or where he performs now days?

  • Silver Spring Mining Company Magician

    The magician’s name is David Breth (web site: davidbreth.com), we have gone to see his public performances in Havre de Grace at a restaurant called La Cucina.

    He is there every week (Tuesday’s); I believe you can catch his act at 5 O’clock – ?

  • http://www.realtorbrevard.com/ Betty Buddemeyer

    My husband and I grew up in Baltimore and do love that wonderful Sour Beef and Dumplings. I make my dumplings at least 2 inches. I was visiting my brother for Christmas and found myself making Sour Beef & Dumplings for him. I would love to have the Mrs. Minnick’s mix on hand for a quick fix. Do you know where we can get it or order it on-line? The other thing I miss is the good old fat pickled onions. They don’t make them as good as they used to (with a lot of vinegar).

  • Cindy

    In Baltimore and can’t find Mrs Minnick’s Mix. I have gotten at Giant before but no one seems to know what I’m asking for now. Has anyone found at a mom and pop’s place? I really hope they are still around!! Or that their recipe is out there somewhere. It is delicious and easy. Help!

  • Donna

    Are you kidding?? I used to have a local tavern in good ole Baltimore years Back, Had to take orders for the sour beef and hand made tater dumplings, All from scratch. Ran out every week. Same with my crabcakes. Now live in Sunny FL. Miss everything about the different foods and seafood. Only thing dont miss is Winter. :0
    Meanwhile I will continue to have my specialty food items shipped. Spoiling the select few here in Fl. Thanks for letting me enjoy great memories

  • Scott

    Sour Beef and Dumplings is my absolute favorite food in the whole wide world. Of course it would’ve had to have been made by my Mom or one of her two sisters that made it to be even considered a favorite. My mother, now deceased, was born in Baltimore and grew up in Highlandtown. While my dad is from Pennsylvania and German, the Sour Beef and Dumplings were definitely not familiar to me because of either of those reasons. My mother was Polish and she and her sisters made this dish. I also remember going to church dinners in Baltimore City where this dish would be served, but if I remember correctly those were churches of the Polish communities. I remember that my Mom would use ginger snaps to make the gravy for the dumplings. And the dumplings were big and heavy. In fact, the gummier the dumplings the better I thought they were. I could have cared less about the beef other than the flavor it imparted to the gravy. I loved the sweet and the tangy richness of the gravy. I remember that after my Mom died that my dad and my oldest brother’s wife attempted to make the dumplings and they just dissolved. If only Mom were here. Thanks for that memory, Mom!

  • Karen

    I need to know where to find MRS. Minnick’s Sour Beef Marinate in the bottle. The Giant has stopped carrying it. Will buy a case. Karen

  • Vince

    I found Mrs. Minnick’s at SuperFresh in Hampden (Baltimore City) this week. It was on the bottom shelf, and looked nearly sold out. But it was there on Friday.

  • sharon

    every supermarket i go to says they will not be making mrs.minnicks this is a bad thing i need mrs minnicks!!!!

  • Ann Derkatsch

    Hello Natalie,
    I loved the article and the recipe. I started my Marinade today. I am from Baltimore and I can remember as soon as leaves started falling from the trees I would hear my Mother say “Its time for sour beef and dumplings”. My mother always had Mrs. Minnicks in the cupboard; it was a staple in our house. I have since moved to Indiana and and have been craving Sour Beef for years. Not a single Grocer here in Fort Wayne has ever heard of this Marinade. I have even frequented some of Amish shops in this area and can not find it. So I find your article and I am on my way to be a happy camper this weekend. Being from the east(Baltimore) I miss a lot of the foods that are avail to us, Sour Beef is one of them, the infamous Chesapeake Blue Crab and many of soups and stews. I have remembered a few recipes and cooked them for mid-western friends and they adore my cooking and the heartiness of the flavor combination’s I manage to use. I guess when you leave in a city where one of largest spice companies call home you learn to cook with those spices and love it! I can not wait to serve Sour Beef and Dumplings to friends this weekend. They heard talk about it but I have never made it for them. OH What a TREAT I have store for them. Thanks again and Blessing!

  • cindy

    I can remember my dad making his sour beef putting it in a brown crock in the frig for days .Unfortunatly I lost my parents at a young age and wish I had them, to give me theses old recipes and the old crock .Yours looks great and will make my husband some next week. We are from waverly in Balto .Thankyou

  • anita

    I was born and raised in Baltimore,now live in myrtle beach and can’t find the mix down here,does anybody know where I can get Mrs Minninks mix at thanks so much!!!

  • Da

    Mars Supermarket carries Miss Minnicks sourbeef mix

  • Emily Demougeot

    Angels Supermarket on Mountain Rd. Pasadena has Mrs. Minnicks sauerbraten mix.