Peasant food: German cuisine tranforms cheap ingredients into gourmet delicacies

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Once upon a time, German food was among the most respected cuisines in the world. While it lacked the refinement of French food or the exuberance of Italian, the rich, warmly-accented cuisine was eminently satisfying. Moreover, its emphasis on inexpensive ingredients and robust seasonings meant that a good German cook could produce a delicious, expansive meal for a relatively small amount of money.

Unfortunately, as American consumers became more health-conscious, German food had a hard time making the transition. Designed for a harsh, cold climate, the cuisine tends to be highly caloric, with rich sausages and meat dishes accompanied by carbo-bombing dumplings and peasant breads. Even German vegetables, like sauerkraut and red cabbage, came under attack for their high salt and vinegar content and presumed lack of nutrients.

As wallets tighten, however, it seems like the time is ripe for German food to make a comeback. Its tendency to use cheaper cuts of meat and more plebian veggies makes it perfect for families that are looking to save money. Moreover, by offering smaller helpings and employing a few substitutions, careful cooks can greatly reduce its fat, sodium, and calorie content.

Matthew Weingarten, the Executive Chef at New York's Inside Park restaurant, has experimented with seasonings and preparation methods to subtly update classic German cuisine. His marinated mushroom recipe, which follows, makes a great accompaniment to meat dishes like sauerbraten or tastes great by itself.

If you're interested in exploring German cuisine at length, there are numerous internet sites and a few good cookbooks. In my opinion, however, the classic cookbook is still Jan Mitchell's Luchow's German Cookbook. Best of all, like the cuisine, the book is cheap -- used copies are going for as little as $1!

Click through for Weingarten's great marinated mushroom recipe.

Matthew Weingarten's Mushroom Preserves

1 pound mushrooms, cut in quarters or halves, depending on size
8 shallots, diced
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, picked off stems
2 large bay leaves
2 fresh rosemary sprigs
1 tablespoon fresh marjoram, cut in chiffonade slivers
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
6 allspice seeds
1 clove
12 peppercorns
1/4 cup salt
1 cup fruity olive oil
2 cups water
1/2 cup aged sherry vinegar
8 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 cup currants
2 tablespoons sugar

Place mushrooms, shallots, thyme leaves, bay leaves, rosemary and marjoram in a bowl. Toast fennel seeds, allspice, clove and peppercorns in a dry pan over medium heat. Add salt and warm through. Pour the toasted spice mixture over the mushrooms and gently toss.

Bring olive oil, water, vinegar, garlic, currants and sugar to a boil in a small pan. Pour this mixture over mushrooms, cover and let cool at room temperature.

Proceed with normal canning procedure or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three months to be used alongside roasted meats throughout the season.

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