The New Convivialist

Category: german

Foraging

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For me, the activity of foraging for mushrooms has always elicited an aura of both danger and decadence. I imagine a romantic scene: I trek lightly over a soft layer of ground cover amidst the early morning mist of an autumn day in Emilia-Romagna. Poking along gently with a forked end of a stick, I dream of finding a roost of fat porcini under a perpetually overlooked tree. A satisfying pluck from the forked end of a stick and into the hunting basket it goes. Read the rest of this entry »

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Like Beige Floating in Beige: A Käsespätzle Recipe from Scratch

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After over three years of living in Germany and foolishly believing countless friends in their promises to show me how to make Käsespätzle from scratch, finally I receive an invitation. It is the invitation to beat all invitations. It comes from Lea, my friend and the girlfriend of the fabled Benoit (of canelé and tarte tatin notoriety). Read the rest of this entry »

White Asparagus or Weisser Spargel: A Recipe for Spring

recipe white asparagus spargel

Spargelzeit has descended on Germany, during which a weekend without eating the ‘white gold’ is not only impossible but practically a sin. If you are a German reader, you could probably just skip this post altogether and carry on just the way you have been with your white asparagus. But to a non-German audience, for whom this springtime delicacy is not so ubiquitous, the following might be of interest.

Dear friends Martin, Yvonne and their little one-year old Oskar were visiting over the weekend from New York. Since they both originally come from the areas surrounding Berlin, known as some of the prime Spargel-producing regions in the world, I thought, perfect– they can show me how it’s done. I should have also brought them along for the shopping, since as I learned, not all Spargel is treated alike. Best to look out for when buying white asparagus is that all pieces are approximately the same size and that they are very straight and very white. Also important is that the cuts are moist and appear fresh. If you can, before buying asparagus, squeeze the bottom to see if droplets of water come out from the cut bottom end. If they do, chances are the spears are quite fresh and will taste better. In the worst-case scenario, your stalks of asparagus will be ‘woody’ when cooked, meaning that they are fibrous and too tough to eat. Choosing Spargel directly from your region is always ideal, as it will result in the freshest specimens. This is why it rarely, if ever, pops up in North America.

Martin claims his grandfather actually had a small crop of white asparagus when he was a child, and he learned how to harvest it himself. But after the wall fell and the family got cable television, the crop was left unattended and perished. Too bad. Anyway, Martin remembered a thing or two about how white asparagus was grown– under small mounds of earth, never seeing the sun, to which it owes its albino coloring. Apparently the best Spargel in Germany comes from Beelitz, a small town not far from Berlin. Here, there is even a Spargel Queen named every year. (2013 Spargelkönigen is Miss Michaela Kranepuhl, if you were wondering. Note the color of her light golden locks is EXACTLY the color a good piece of cooked Spargel should be).

To say that the way to cook white asparagus is to boil it is technically correct, but please be gentle. For the best results, the cooking water should be salted and lightly sugared, brought to a boil but kept at a simmer as the asparagus stalks cook. The cooking time will vary greatly depending on how thick the stalks are, so you need to keep an eye on them to be sure they do not turn to mush.

There are myriad sauces and pairings that you can try with white asparagus, depending on which region in Germany you look to for inspiration. Quite classic is hollandaise sauce, but equally popular is serving the cooked asparagus with simple peeled potatoes and melted butter, perhaps with a sprinkling of parsley. Schinken, or ham, also fits well. Basically anything transforming what is essentially a superfood, packed with nutrients and detoxifying agents, into a fatty delight, will work. Our two consecutive failed attempts at hollandaise sauce (we almost had it!) caused us to turn to Plan B: melted butter with lemon, which to be honest I prefer anyway.

 

Recipe: White Asparagus with New Potatoes and Lemon Butter

Serves 4

 

1 kilo white asparagus

1 kilo new potatoes

200 grams butter

juice from one lemon

chopped parsley or other green herbs

salt

sugar

 

1. Rinse asparagus. Trim about 1 inch (2-3 cm) from the tough ends of the spears using a sharp knife. Peel about 2/3 of each spear below the floret using a vegetable peeler, being careful not to break the asparagus. At this point, if you like, you can bind the asparagus in bundles with cooking twine in order to more easily lower them in and out of the water and not to break the tops.

2. Prepare a large pot of water with about 2 tsp of salt per liter and one tsp of sugar. Bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and drop in either the bundles of asparagus, or gather all at once in your hands and drop at once into the water, heads upright

3. Cook at a simmer until the asparagus can be poked through with a knife. This can take anywhere from 9 – 30 minutes depending on how thick they are. When cooked through, remove from water carefully and dry. (As you pull them out, you can place them on a paper towel, for example.)

4. Meanwhile, prepare potatoes: Rinse any dirt off the new potatoes’ skins and put them in a large pot. Cover new potatoes with cool water and bring everything to a boil. Add a good amount of salt and cook, gently boiling, until the potatoes are fully tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes, shaking off as much water as possible. Peel as soon as they are cool enough. Transfer to a serving dish.

5. Melt butter in a heavy sauce pan (or make brown butter, if you want to be fancier). Remove from heat.

6. Gently toss potatoes with half of the melted butter to coat and sprinkle with chopped parsley or other green herbs, if you like.

7. Whisk the lemon juice in with the remaining butter. Add a tsp of salt, or to taste, stir and then pour evenly over the asparagus spears.

8. Serve a few spears and a few potatoes on each plate and eat with some Spargel-crazed German friends.

9. Go to the bathroom in an hour or two and know that you have been detoxified.

 

 

Zwiebelkuchen and Federweisser

Federweisser

For the past couple of months I have been lamenting the lack of Fall Things here in Germany. Why aren’t people running off to the countryside to pick apples every weekend? Why are the pumpkins only for eating and not for carving? And don’t even get me started on Halloween… I know. These are all American Fall Things. But wonderful things. Things that should be emulated in all countries lucky enough to have seasons. Traditions, however, are subtle things and even though nothing can ever replace a good apple pie in October, there might –just might– be some German Autumn traditions worth writing home about.

Take Zwiebelkuchen and Federweisser, for instance. This culinary tradition, though admittedly more popular in wine-producing regions of Germany than in Berlin, is based upon the seasonal early grape harvest. Though it is bottled to look like wine, Federweisser is actually must, the result of partially fermented white grape juice. The taste is somewhere between sparkling white wine and sweet, refreshing grape juice. In order to be Federweisser, it must contain 4% alcohol by volume, but depending on how long it’s been sitting around, it can reach up to 10% alcohol. Which is also the fun of Federweisser: you simply never know exactly how tipsy one glass (or bottle…) will get you. In fact I’m drinking it as I write, so if my grammar is a bit off the mark, you know I’ve been blessed with a 10%-er.

In fact, though, I have been fortunate simply to have found Federweisser this late in the season, according to my local wine shop, as it is typically available only from early September to late October. I first had the delicately balanced meal of Federweisser and Zwiebelkuchen (a savory onion tart) at my friend Eva’s house somewhere around mid-September. She, as an excellent cook of all things German and traditional, inspired me that night; I vowed to try to make the dish myself as soon as possible. Now, nearly two months later, after having bought every possible mini-sized candy from the supermarket in preparation for the costumed children who would never even come close to knocking on my door on Halloween, in a near fit of American Autumn Nostalgia, I needed to do reconcile this. I gave myself a pep-talk: German traditions can be good, too. Just try it.

So, I tried it. I already knew from Eva’s that it would be a nice meal. With cooler weather, you crave fatty, heavier foods, naturally. Add a couple of glasses of a beverage of ambiguous alcohol content and you really crave fatty, heavier foods. Zwiebelkuchen, enter stage left.

Quite aside from the food and drink themselves, in spite of myself I discovered I suddenly had that Fall Feeling I had been craving. Perhaps the solution was never to flee the city to pick my own apples or to buy a bunch of mini-Snickers for little ghosts and goblins. It was just to pick up a bottle of sweet ‘feather-white’, fry up some onions and let Autumn in Berlin take hold.

Zwiebelkuchen recipe

Zwiebelkuchen – Onion Tart – Recipe

For the dough:

1 teaspoon active dry yeast

180 grams (about 1 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoons melted butter or olive oil

½ cup (120 mL) lukewarm water

For the topping:

Approx. 100 grams bacon, cubed in thick lardons

½ kilo yellow onions (around 2 medium/large) peeled and sliced

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1 Tablespoon butter

Pinch of sugar

1 teaspoon salt, divided

¾ cup (175 grams) sour cream

1 egg

Freshly ground nutmeg and black pepper, to taste

 

1. For the dough: In a mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water. Stir in 1/4 cup flour and let the mixture get bubbly, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add the kosher salt, butter or oil and remaining flour and mix to form a rough ball. Knead the dough (with hands or stand mixer) for about 5 minutes. Let rise, covered with a damp towel or plastic wrap, until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

2. To make the topping. While the dough is rising, in a large skillet over medium heat cook the bacon, stirring frequently, until the fat is rendered out and the bacon is crisp around the edges, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Add to the skillet the olive oil and butter. When butter is melted and beginning to bubble, add the onions, sugar and ½ teaspoon of the salt. Sauté over medium heat for about 20 to 25 minutes, until the onions are completely soft and just beginning to caramelize around the edges. Remove from the heat and cool completely.

3. In a medium bowl stir together the sour cream, egg and remaining ½ teaspoon salt. Add freshly ground nutmeg and black pepper to taste.

4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. With floured hands, stretch and pat the dough out to cover the entire sheet. Let rest for about 15 minutes. Spread the cooled onions over the dough. Sprinkle with the cooked bacon. Pour the sour cream mixture over the top and spread to distribute evenly. Let stand in a warm place while preheating the oven to 425°F (approx. 220° C).

5. When the oven is hot, carefully slide the pan onto the center rack and bake for 25 to 35 minutes, or until the topping is firm and the dough is golden. Let cool slightly, then cut into squares. Yield is only 3-4 servings, so feel free to double this recipe for a larger dinner.

Enjoy with a glass of Federweisser or a crisp white wine, ideally a German one. Enjoy the cosy feeling of Fall Things.

zwiebelkuchen dough

Federweisser and Zwiebelkuchen