Sans Spice

My spice rack can be a bit overwhelming. 

When I say ‘spice rack,’ what I really mean is ‘spice cabinet.’  My spice collection takes up an entire 3-shelf kitchen cabinet–the savory herbs and spices on one shelf, the sweet spices on another, and salts, peppers, and pickling spices on a third (along, it must be admitted, with some pickling equipment, but not much). 

I don’t just have the basics (though honestly, these days who knows what The Basics are?) I’ve got things that most people haven’t even heard of.  Long pepper?  Check.  Grains of paradise?  Yes, indeed.  Worse, I don’t believe that I could get along without almost everything I have.  I really do use all the different individual chile powders and juniper berries and green and red peppercorns.   I really do USE all three varieties of paprika–weekly, even!

Last night, though, I made a meal without any spices at all.

As you might remember, I spent two weeks of this summer in Germany.  Since then, I have made more traditionally German (or at least Germanic) food than I ever have in my entire life.  Most of the dishes I’ve making are not even ones that I ate when abroad, but for some reason I feel compelled–happily compelled–to make them. 

Last night I made a very unusual stew that I found in a couple-of-decades-old German library cookbook.  The stew originally interested me because it contained enormous quantities of leeks–not as a substitute for onions, but as the major component of the dish. 

The stew starts out as most German stews do, with bacon.  I have rarely seen a stew recipe that did not begin with an instruction to crisp some bacon in a pan, remove the bacon, and continue with the soup using the bacon drippings as the cooking fat.  I could have used leftover bacon fat from the jar I keep in the back of the fridge (yes, I really do.  It’s excellent for searing salmon in), but I wanted bacon bits to sprinkle on top of the stew, and thus followed the recipe directly.

The stew continued in a familiar way, with a saute of aromatics–in this case, an onion, two carrots and two celery root, all cut into 1/2-inch cubes.  After they were browned (a difficult task, given the constrast between the sheer quantity of vegetables and the relatively modest size of my Dutch oven), I added 4 cups of beef stock and brought the whole thing to a bubble.

Now for the fun part: bockwurst.  Bockwurst is one of the eleventy-million varieties of sausage produced in Germany, and one of my favorites.  It’s an emulsified sausage, meaning that the insides are smooth and almost fluffy.  Teacherman describes them as “like a meat marshmallow,” but I don’t find that description particularly appetizing.   (He also prefers wiesswurst to bockwurst, which is a conflict).

In spite of my weekly practice of sausage-making, I have never made an emulsified sausage.  Luckily, there are two places in Chicago where I can purchase phenomenal sausages, almost as good as the ones we had in Germany.  Thus, I had easily procured one pound of bockwurst, and I had it at the ready.

I placed the bockwurst on top of the bubbling vegetables, turned it down to a simmer, covered the pan, and left it to stew for 40 minutes.  When I checked it after 20, I discovered that all of the sausages had split, exploding out of their skins and leaving yawning canyons all down one side (one sausage actually managed to split in a spiral–I’m not sure how that happened).  I understand that some people find split-skinned sausages to be an abomination impossible to be tolerated, but I have never minded it.  On a grilled sausage, a split skin just means there’s more surface to caramelize, and on a braised sausage like this, it means that it was easier for the juices of the stew to flavor the meat of the sausage (and the juices of the sausage to add body to the flavor of the stew). 

When 40 minutes were up, I added 2 pounds of leeks, quartered, cleaned, and sliced into 1/2-inch curves.  The lid went back on for 15 minutes, just long enough for the leeks to become crisp-tender, but not long enough to become limp and unfortunate.  I added a little salt at the same time as the leeks, but the stock, bacon and sausage contributed salt of their own, and I barely tipped in more than a pinch.

Voila.  A leek and bockwurst stew.  Given my love for Thai curry and southwestern green chile, can such a spiceless dish garner any praise from me at all?  Aren’t such dishes usually characterized as bland?

Yes, it’s true.  German food is often considered bland (along with “heavy,” a word which I’m beginning to believe means only “makes the speaker feel guilty for enjoying it”).  And it’s also true that this dish didn’t have any screamingly herbal top notes or sparkling, acidic touches.  What it did have was depth–the deep background flavor of the sauteed onions, carrots and celery root, which was mellow and earthy without being in-your-face.   The bockwurst was almost sweet in contrast to the vegetables, and the softness of the meat was comforting. 

The leeks, though, were what really made the stew.  They were cooked just enough to have given up their raw crunchiness, but still seemed fresh.  The soft but firm give of the leeks provided textural contrast and a giant hit of flavor.  Even without spices, it was a delicious, satisfying dish.

Published in: on November 5, 2007 at 9:52 am  Leave a Comment  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: