I’ve written a couple times about my grandpa and grandma going out for a restaurant meal, and I’ve always wondered what they ordered.
In their day and age, a night out to celebrate usually meant a steak of some sort, and I’m sure my grandpa enjoyed more than a few of those.
There is one dish, though, that I know my grandfather enjoyed at home and at restaurants, when he could get it.
I know this because — you guessed it — he expressed his fondness for it on his calendar.
Exhibit A, from January 29, 1966, involves a meal out:
January 29, 1966. Hugo’s used to be a German restaurant (don’t see many of those any more) somewhere in Fairfield County. I ate there once myself, in the spring of 1981, as part of a huge family gathering to celebrate my grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary. It’s possible I had the sauerbraten, but I don’t remember.
And Exhibit B, from almost exactly the same time the year before, features a meal at home.
January 26 and 27, 1965. Some people look forward to Shark Week, others to Fashion Week, and still others to Sauerbraten Week.
Despite being fairly handy and experimentative in the kitchen, I’d never made sauerbraten. The thought had never even crossed my mind.
But when I saw these two calendar entries, I knew I would have to give it a try. My grandpa would expect nothing less.
To the kitchen, then.
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Sauerbraten, for anyone not familiar with the concept, is an old German recipe in which a beef roast is marinated for several days in a mix of vinegar and spices before being cooked pot-roast fashion. The marinade cooks with the meat, and is then thickened to serve as gravy.
It’s solid, stick-to-your-ribs fare, perfect for wintry nights … but not bland or lacking in nuance, like some such dishes can be.
Unfortunately, I do not have my great-grandma’s sauerbraten recipe. So I took my battered copy of The Joy of Cooking in hand and went to work.
The principal ingredients.
The beef prepares to enter the fridge, ensconced in a soak of vinegar, sugar, peppercorns, bay leaves, onion powder and maybe a trace of nutmeg.
Joy says sauerbraten should soak anywhere from two to four days (Wikipedia suggests as long as 10, but that sounded long to me.)
I gave my beef about three-and-a-half days, turning occasionally, which seemed like a good amount of time. And when it came out on Saturday afternoon, it looked like this:
The next step was to brown the meat on all sides while warming up the marinade in a separate pan:
Then, everything went into the oven for about three-and-a-half hours at 320 degrees. (In the interim I did some laundry; shoveled off my deck; napped on the couch; and started making spaetzle, Teutonic mini-dumplings that go nicely with just about anything German.)
At the appointed time, I took the meat out of the oven and admired my handiwork and … well, I’m pretty sure I screwed it up.
See, all the pix of sauerbraten I’ve ever seen show it as conventional slices of beef, like a pot roast looks.
But the beef I had had the breaking-down texture of barbecued beef or pork — more suitable for pulling into long strings.
So that’s what I did with it. Who am I to blow against the wind?
After doing that, I strained the remaining marinade and combined it with a bit of light cream and some crushed gingersnaps — an old cook’s trick to add both body and spice to the sauce.
How do you say “secret ingredient” in German?
For the final touches, I served some applesauce as a side dish, and poured the sort of light American pilsner that would have been common in my grandfather’s time.
How was it?
Well, I’m still not sure I made it right — I don’t think real sauerbraten is supposed to break down into strings. (Joy suggested several different cuts of beef, but the one I chose may not have been the same cut most commonly used by German cooks.)
But it tasted pretty good — considerably better than it looked. It was pleasantly puckery without being overbearing, and the gravy added a nice sweetness to the meat and the spaetzle.
In between the vinegary tang and the moist, sweet sauce, it came out almost like a German twist on barbecue.
My older son and wife ate heartily, and even my younger son — who usually assumes a high-handed Statler-and-Waldorf contempt toward my cooking — ate a good amount and suggested I make it again.
I think my grandpa would have enjoyed it as well … though at first glance, he probably would have asked me what I did with the sauerbraten he’d been waiting three days for.