Next week, it will be 18 years since I immigrated to the United States from Germany. I have fully settled into a new life, with an American husband, children, and passport. Meanwhile I still feel very much connected to my German self by the language in which I do most of my work, and the food I cook and grow in my garden.
All those spaetzle, soups, dumplings, apple pancakes, desserts with red currants and gooseberries do more for me than just satisfy a nostalgic craving for the food itself.
When I met my husband, he was a widower with two young children. In the first few years we were all so consumed by growing together as a family that teaching the children my native language would have been one thing too much on everyone’s plate so we didn’t do it.
However, since I stumbled into writing Spoonfuls of Germany, the book that is, which first came out in 2004 and was recently released as an ebook, German food has taken the role of the German cultural ambassador in our family. My husband and children don’t speak more than a few words of German, and have never been to Germany except for brief visits but they know and appreciate a lot of German dishes. Today the scent of a Pot Roast from the Römertopf filling the house means comfort food for all of us.
And, over dinner, I have shared with my family, literally mouthful by mouthful, the stories and memories that are tied to those foods for me, giving them glimpses into my past before I came to America.
The process of my digging out recipes from Germany’s huge and fantastic culinary repertoire has not ended. On the contrary, it is in full swing. I am currently working on a new book that will put everything I love about German cuisine in one place, with lots of beautiful photos taken by my husband, so stay tuned!
Sometimes, when I look with a fresh eye at food I loved as a child I realize that I need to give the recipes a healthier makeover. Today I would not make the same Toast Hawaii my mother used to assemble for a quick and easy Sunday dinner and which I gobbled up, always eating the bread last because that was my least favorite part. Nor do I follow most German cake recipes to the letter when they call for half a pound of butter for the pastry crust alone.
The challenge is to get everything to taste as authentic as possible yet fit better for today’s diet.
A few days ago I made a Leek and Cheese Soup for dinner. In Germany it falls under the category of Mitternachtssuppen, “midnight soups” – soups for a crowd, served at a party after a long night of drinking. Goulash Soup is another one of them.
The original Leek and Cheese Soup is made with processed cheese (Schmelzkäse in German), which is on my blacklist of foods. Instead I tried it with regular sharp cheddar. Success! My family loved it and it vanished.
Over the past year I have slimmed down and adapted a few other recipes. You’ll find them scattered throughout this post (click on the images to get to the recipe).
Cheese and Leek Soup with Ground Beef (Käse-Lauch-Suppe mit Hackfleisch)
3 to 4 leeks, depending on thickness, trimmed, using only the white and about 1 inch (2.5 cm) of the green part
1 pound (450 g) ground beef
2 tablespoons olive oil, as needed
1 medium yellow potato, peeled and finely diced
7 cups (1.6 liter) water
1 teaspoon salt
1 generous pinch of nutmeg
5 ounces (140 g) sharp cheddar, finely diced
Freshly ground pepper
1. Halve the leeks lengthwise and slice them very thinly. Wash them thoroughly at least twice in a bowl with cold water. Drain in a colander.
2. Brown the meat in a large pot, breaking it apart with a wooden spoon. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon. Leave about 2 tablespoons of the fat in the pot and discard the rest. If the meat is very lean and there is no fat in the pot, add 2 tablespoons olive oil and heat over medium heat.
3. Add the leeks and cook, stirring, over low to medium heat, until they are soft, about 10 minutes. Add the potato and cook, stirring, for another 3 minutes, until is starts to turn translucent.
4. Return the meat to the pot. Add the water, salt and nutmeg. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and cook, covered, for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally so the potato does not stick to the bottom of the pan.
5. Reduce the heat to a minimum and gradually add the cheddar, stirring it to fully melt before adding more. Cook until heated through but do not boil. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.
Makes 6 servings