Thursday, February 28, 2008

Still Cooking for Margy

I've obviously been a horribly delinquent blogger. It's been eating away at me. Plus I'm not inventorying our meals properly, which was always a fringe benefit of running CFM -- if I wanted to remember how I'd handled a dish or an ingredient, I could just look it up. That's helpful when you don't really use recipes and tend not to write things down. So the details behind that amazing roux-thickened, herb-flavored sauce I made for a red snapper back in October will keep fading away until I just have to start again from scratch and hope I haven't lost my juju.

Now, let's get caught up a little. We have a trip to rehash before I get back to discussing my own kitchen experiments.

Last September, Margy and I went to Amsterdam and Germany. It was our first visit to Amsterdam and my first visit to Germany (Margy's been there countless times; her mom is German born). Everything we ate in Amsterdam was delicious -- every meal, for each of our five days. We went fancy; we went humble. I had rare lamb chops with fried gnocchi one night (before we went to see the Police at the 50,000-seat Amsterdam ArenA), and the next day, after hanging around the Rembrandt House, I ate the best hot dog I've had in my life. I dressed it with mustard and a zig-zag of curry ketchup and nibbled on it as a brass band floated by on the canal beneath us, a bunch of guys in yellow shirts and red ties, packed so tightly into a little boat that there wasn't room for them to move beyond working their trombone slides.

And of course we ate Dutch pancakes. This is our sweet/savory combo: one with lemon and sugar, which we dressed with a thick molasses-rich syrup, and one with bacon and onion. Just thinking about the aroma of the batter on the griddles in that restaurant is enough to make me book another ticket.

The German food we ate didn't dazzle me the way the Dutch offerings did. We had a few fancy meals that were excellent, but I had my eye more on the everyday foods. Would you believe that I couldn't get myself a bratwurst? I don't know, maybe in its native land bratwurst has become a joke, or a myth. Is it the Salisbury steak of Germany? Not once, but twice, I found a wonderful-sounding item on a menu -- "seven little grilled bratwurst served with potatoes and onions," let's say. I stomped my feet a bit and rubbed my hands together and got ready for snappy sausages. Then I'd hear, "I'm sorry, it isn't available."

The first time this happened I ordered roasted chicken and vegetables instead. I got roasted chicken and vegetables. Not bad. The second time, on our last night in Germany, at an adorable restaurant, sitting on a vine-covered porch overlooking the moonlit Rhine along with Margy's parents, aunt, uncle, and cousins (and their dog), it was harder to take no for an answer. I was confused: "I'm in Germany. Why can't I have a bratwurst?" I listened to Margy's cousin explain that there should be no good reason why a restaurant would run out of bratwurst -- after all, he said, it's vacuum packed and refrigerated and not in danger of spoiling quite like fresh beef would be. I sulked, I pouted. At everyone's suggestion, I ordered a rindswurst. It was okay. It was like a thick-skinned hot dog, only not like an Amsterdam hot dog if you catch my drift.

Looking back, it was in Cologne, on our first night in Germany, where we had what I'd call our most authentic and fun restaurant meal. (It was also in Cologne where I could have had my way with a bratwurst or a currywurst, but at the time I deemed a stand outside the train station to be an inappropriate setting. Wish I could take that one back.) The place was a "small" beer hall, which meant it could hold only about a hundred people or so. We started with pickled herring, which frankly was more of a red herring if you ask me -- it had the perfect balance of flavors and was so wonderfully delicious that it set up, in my mind, expectations that would not be met over the next few days.

Here's Margy's main course from that meal -- curled sausage with potatoes. The creamy white mound at left is the vegetable. It's cream. Sorry -- it's creamed spinach. Doesn't the sausage look lovely? It tasted like breakfast sausage. My entree of pork knuckle (it's meat from the leg, not an actual knuckle), which had the same accompaniments, was tasty but dry.

The atmosphere, however, was great. A big, boisterous table of German men dining after work (presumably) was given its own portable six-liter fountain of Kolsch beer, and I could watch the liquid level fall steadily before my eyes as the guys drew more drinks. Meanwhile, Margy and I were drinking Kolsch as well -- in six-ounce glasses. The poor hardworking waitress, clutching a palette hollowed out with round holes to hold a bunch of tiny glasses, had to run downstairs every time we wanted two more beers. When the check came, Margy and I found we'd drunk nine beers between us.

I don't mean to slag German food. We had a bunch of great lunches -- smoked trout, liverwurst, ham, cheese, brown bread -- and we did enjoy our two fancier dinners, which included a Riesling cream soup with dill and chive dumplings, and perhaps the best mushroom dish I've ever eaten: duck ravioli with chanterelles and peaches. The mushroom flavor (there was a truffle in there somewhere) was utterly clear and pure, and eating the ravioli was one of those times when you're simultaneously rushing and stalling. Margy's parents have seen me ooh and aah over food, but my ravioli rapture might have scared them a little.

Also, I found that, especially in Cologne but in other town centers that we walked through as well, there is a bewitching meaty aroma wafting through the German air. It's the scent of great pieces of pork set a-roasting. It had me transfixed, and it tempted me to track it down. I chased it, I floated after it, but I couldn't see it -- I couldn't be sure exactly where it led. It angers me still that I can't eat that aroma, even though I cannot quite remember the aroma itself. Madness, take me now! I vow to return, and to find the place where I can satisfy my hunger. Maybe the joint will serve bratwurst.