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New German Cooking

Beyond wurst, kraut, and pretzels, a new wave of chefs is bringing German cuisine into the 21st century

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Bratwurst. Spätzle. Sauerkraut. Weisswurst. Schnitzel. These are the classic German foods we can all readily identify. But there’s more to the cuisine than the traditional hearty, meaty dishes that we’ve been conditioned to expect.

Consider the pilzstrudel — a strudel stuffed with wild mushrooms and smoked barley — which is entirely vegetarian-friendly and served with roasted carrots. Yes, you read that correctly: a completely meatless German dish devoid of any sauerkraut on the side. Or how about a fresh salad with forelle (smoked trout), asparagus, and radishes tossed in a horseradish dressing? While it might sound a bit farm-to-table, German cuisine is no stranger to seafood or salads.

“German food is more than just sausages, schnitzel, and sauerkraut,” said Jeremy Nolen, chef at Brauhaus Schmitz in Philadelphia.

No one is urging Americans to look at German food in a different light as much as chef Nolen is. For years, he’s worked to dispel the typical stereotypes about German food by creating and preparing modernized dishes based on traditional flavors. His first cookbook, called New German Cooking, is set to be released by Chronicle Books next fall.

What is new German cooking, anyway? A lot like “American food,” since German roots here date back to colonial times. Early America was a very German place, after all. For most Americans, the notion of anything relatively “new” happening in the realm of German food is far-fetched. When the earliest German immigrants came from Bavaria, their rural cuisine of meats, breads, and potatoes stuck as the foundation of our notions of German food. And despite Germany’s great evolution into an economic superpower since then, our views of the country’s cuisine haven’t progressed much.

“New German cooking is all about bringing something old back with a twist,” said Nolen about his approach towards modernizing German cuisine here in the states. He isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel. Rather, Nolen aims to update German food by gearing it more toward current food trends that Americans recognize.

How most Americans think of German food: wurst, pretzels, and pickled turnips

“Ingredients might be German-influenced or German-inspired, but Americans actually look at the dish and see something worth trying,” said Nolen. “Like paprika — we think of paprika as what you put on top of deviled eggs or baked chicken, but it has a sweet, peppery flavor that is actually widely used in German cuisine.”

Americans aren’t the only ones taking a fresh look at German food. The culinary renaissance is occurring at home in Germany too, where talented chefs are working differently with local cuisine and creating something noteworthy. Like Nolen, they aren’t reinventing what German food is, just elevating traditional dishes into contemporary creations. In the newly released 2013 Michelin guide, Germany earned an impressive total of 311 stars across 255 different restaurants, more than any European country besides France. German gastronomic culture is perhaps even more exciting than Italy’s and Spain’s right now.

There’s no better time to reconsider German cooking. The updated cuisine, which combines the essence of traditional dishes with creative and contemporary influences, is refining and revitalizing what was once thought to be a dull culinary scene. New German cooking sticks to its flavor roots while embracing modern techniques in the kitchen. But why the sudden interest in pioneering a new identity for German fare?

“There’s the renewed intrigue surrounding old-school techniques like pickling, smoking and curing, which are vital within the German kitchen tradition,” said Drew Lazor, who’s writing New German Cooking with Chef Nolen and Jessica Nolen, his pastry chef and wife. “There’s also the fact that neighboring nations like Italy, France and Spain have defined the European cooking identity for so long. Germany’s overdue for exploration.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean that New German cooking will replace molecular gastronomy or become the “new” New Nordic in the world of culinary trends. “It’s definitely not trendy,” said Nolen, “though it’s something people are looking to discover.”

At the very least, a spotlight is being shone on a cuisine long due for an overhaul. And as the German food scene continues to earn some culinary respect and pique Americans’ interests, perhaps we can all finally look beyond sausages and sauerkraut.

“It’s difficult to tell at this point if German cooking, “new” or not, will evolve into a global movement,” said Lazor, “but certainly all the elements are in place for it to become a vital part of the global food conversation.”

Braumeister Schweinesteak

If you’re looking for a grilling alternative to burgers and franks, this is the move — a pork sirloin steak, with an effortless beer-based marinade, that’s both versatile and satisfying. “Braumeister,” which means “brewmaster,” refers to the marinade itself, big on flavors like mustard, garlic and marjoram. Serve these steaks with your favorite grilling accompaniments like German potato salad or a lightly-dressed mixed green salad.

Ingredients

1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons finely chopped marjoram, or 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon Maggi seasoning
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
½ cup dark lager
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
6 pork sirloin steaks, about 8 ounces each

Instructions

In a spice or coffee grinder, combine caraway seeds, mustard seeds, salt, paprika and black pepper and pulse until coarsely ground. Remove and place in a small mixing bowl. Add marjoram, garlic, Maggi, vinegar, beer and oil to bowl and whisk together until combine. Pour over pork steaks and marinate overnight.

The next day, prepare a charcoal or gas grill on medium-high heat. Season pork steaks with kosher salt and pepper and place on the pre-oiled grill. Cook until there are nicely charred marks on it and the internal temperature reads 150ºF/65º C on a thermometer, about 6 minutes on each side. Remove from grill and allow to rest for 5 minutes.

Serves 6

Recipe by Chef Jeremy Nolen

Photos by Kevin Harber via Flickr (Creative Commons) and happy_serendipity via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Shelby Vittek is an award-winning food, wine, and travel writer. Her food writing has twice won awards from the Association of Food Journalists. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, The Smart Set, the Philadelphia Daily News, The Triangle and on Terroirist.com and 1WineDude.com. She is currently an MFA candidate at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter: @bigboldreds.

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