March 2009


My last few food posts have been more anecdote than recipe, so for this post my goal is to keep the story short and sweet, and get to the food as soon as I can.

This story begins with my grandfather Leo, who despite being born in the United States, grew up speaking German in a small area of east central Wisconsin called “The Holyland”.  Dotted with minuscule farming communities all centered around (and named after) Catholic churches, this area persisted as an autonomous German-speaking region well into the twentieth century. My grandfather was from Johnsburg; my mother was born in Marytown, a mere seven miles away.  Other towns included Mt. Calvary, Jericho, and St. Cloud.

St. Marys Church in Marytown Wisconsin.  My mother and her siblings grew up down the hill. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

St. Mary's Church in Marytown, Wisconsin. My mother and her siblings grew up down the hill. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

When I was a kid he spoke English exclusively, but frequently mixed German words, phrases, and idioms into his speech.  A hangover was a “katzenjammer” (pronounced kah-tzen-ya-mer), and from a very young age he called me “Hannes-wurst” which means, literally, “John-sausage”.

The Holyland was for a long time a very insulated German Catholic community.  As a result, the people there created their own slightly modified version of the language over time.  And my Grandfather was third or fourth generation, so his German was anything but “hoch”, that is to say “high”, proper German.  So when we’d go to visit Leo and my grandmother, we’d eat “shtumpus”: a mix of left-over sausage (usually bratwurst), sauerkraut, and mashed potatoes.  It was delicious, but for years afterward I always assumed that “shtumpus” was Holyland-German for “leftovers” or “mash” or some such thing–something delicious, but decidedly humble.

However, as I found out while reading Sanford D’Amato’s column in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel last week, I learned that shtumpus has noble origins.  D’Amato is unquestionably Milwaukee’s finest and widely respected chef and a James Beard Award winner, so when he writes about shtumpus (or as he calls it, “stoemp” or “hutspot”), I feel that my grandfather’s cooking has been exculpated.

However, D’Amato’s version lacks many of the elements of the shtumpus that I was raised on, so last night I thought I’d create my own version: keeping in mind D’Amato’s technique, my grandfather’s love of “speck” (Holyland-German for “fat”), and my own love of root vegetables.  What follows is the delicious result of this effort. This shtumpus may be used as a side dish, or topped with any variety of meats; D’Amato recommends short-ribs, and I used eggplant, pepper and olive ravioli (from the Italian grocery off First Avenue at 11th Street) with toasted pine nuts.

Also, if you’re looking to make this vegetarian,you can just make up for the bacon by adding more butter.  Though there’s so little bacon in this dish, I’d recommend cheating and having a little meat!

The Ingredients:

A 2-3 pound mix of root vegetables, cubed.  Less than half potatoes! (For mine, I used three medium sizes red potatoes, a large parsnip, two medium large turnips, and half of a celery root.)

1/2 pound bacon, diced

One medium onion, diced

1/4 to 1/2 head of cabbage (depending on size), chopped

Milk (no less than whole), a generous splash.

1 to 2 Tablespoons of Butter

Fresh Dill

Salt and Pepper, of course.

The Method:

Start by peeling the root vegetables and chopping them into similarly sized cubes.  Place in a pot, cover with water, add salt,bring to a boil, and simmer until the vegetables are completely done.  Drain into a colander and immediately add back to the pot.  The heat of the pot will help to evaporate the remaining water.  Save about a 1/4 cup of the root vegetable water to steam the cabbage.

While the vegetables are coming up to a boil, dice the bacon, and add to a medium hot skillet with a little butter.  Brown the bacon (not too crispy) and transfer with a slotted spoon to a plate covered with paper towel to drain most of the fat.  Pour out (and reserve) almost all of the bacon fat, but save back a few tablespoons.

Add the onion and saute for a couple minutes in the bacon fat before adding the cabbage, the 1/4 cup root-veg-water, pepper, salt, and a large pinch of minced fresh dill.  Toss in the skillet to combine and cover: to let the cabbage steam (it’ll cook a lot faster this way). Once the cabbage is nearly done, remove the lid to let almost all of the liquid cook off and remove from heat.

Add 1 tablespoon of butter to the root vegetables, along with a generous splash of milk, and a bit of the reserved bacon fat (what the hell, right?).  Mash to desired consistency; I prefer a chunky mash, myself.  Add the cabbage onion mixture, the bacon, and a generous amount of fresh dill to the pot, and stir to combine.

Whether Flemmish or German, Alsatian  or Belgian, this dish is delicious!  Next time you’re going to make mashed potatoes, make this instead!

Before anyone jumps to any rash conclusions, I’d just like to preemptively announce that, in terms of food, I’m like Chipper Jones–a great switch hitter, with power from both sides of the plate.

Okay, for those of y’all who are not baseball fans, I probably should offer a more comprehensive explanation.  I grew up alternating between farm and city, and when I was on a farm, I was exposed at a very young age to the “potential” (or from my perspective: “self-evident reality”) of the humane treatment of livestock in small scale agriculture.  Between the farm that we lived on and the farm that my father was raised on, we raised shorthorn beef cattle and excellent chickens (for both eggs and meat), as well as a couple goats (as pets and as weed control).  As a result, I am most definitely an appreciator of all products animal.

However, after spending a few weeks in Indonesia (and spending a lot more time with a seriously indefatigable vegetarian), I really began to appreciate the methods and ingredients of serious vegetarian cuisine.  This has resulted in a kitchen where we cook with far more tempeh than bacon, and more soymilk (always unsweetened!) than whole milk: though I try to keep both on hand. In short, I love cooking both meat and vegetarian food, and I see no reason why one must pick one or the other.

Why have both soymilk and cow’s milk, you ask?  Its simple: each milk has its pros and cons depending on the situation.  Regular milk is much better for baking, in coffee (most of the time), and for use in egg-based dishes.  However, there’s nothing better with oatmeal (in my opinion) than the nutty richness that is soymilk.

But I digress.  This post is about breakfast, and its about time I started writing about it, because it was ungodly delicious!  Like most of my breakfasts, this one was spontaneous.  I woke up with two thoughts in my head: fried eggs and cornbread.  A good, simple combination methinks…but after a half-cup of coffee, I got ambitious.

My first big idea came quickly: poached eggs.  I had a pretty good aged cheddar on hand, and was running low on butter–butter than I would need for “skillet-ing” (*see note) the cornbread .  I could survive without the butter by poaching the eggs, and the cheese would make a good topping paired with the cornbread.

By this time I was moving in a more southern direction.  I had thrown a couple tablespoons of Spice House chili powder (if you’ve ever had Spice House spices, you’ll understand why I bothered to mention the brand!) into the cornbread batter, as well as a bit of cayenne and dried parsley.  And it was then that I had a second idea: hollandaise.

I’ve never made a hollandaise before and despite my now cup and a half of coffee I wasn’t ready to go down that path this early in the morning.  I had seen an episode of The French Chef with Julia Child where she made one from scratch, and all that I can remember is a lot of butter, egg yolks and cream.  Regardless, I was out of butter–having used the last of it to prep the skillet for cornbread–and all I had on hand was soymilk: not good for this purpose.  So that was a dead end.  Back at square one, I saw a can of pintos in the cabinet, and thought: “this could work.” I already had a southern theme going on, so I could just mince up some shallots and garlic, and saute them with the beans and a few spices; that could make a nice pinto bean topping for the eggs.

So, I’m poaching the eggs (farmers market: the yolks are almost orange they’re so good!), the cornbread is just starting to brown in the oven, and the beans are tasting good, but they’re just beans: uninspiring, and not at all saucy (I was still pining for a hollandaise at this point).  And then I remembered an amazing fact:  I own an immersion blender!

Let me repeat that: I own an immersion blender!

Yes! I grabbed the blender, added a touch of water to the beans, and blended the pintos right in the saucepan until they were a rich, creamy sauce.  Let’s call it a vegan pinto hollandaise.  Brilliant!  So I cut the cornbread into wedges, split it, put the pieces crust-side down, added a layer of the cheese, two poached eggs, and literally covered the whole thing with the pinto-hollandaise.  My god, was it tasty!  My only regret is that I didn’t take a picture.

If this sounds a bit dramatic, believe me it was!  So if you’ve got a blender, I’d recommend making this yourself, as soon as possible.  And when you’re baking cornbread, the simpler the recipe the better: so long as cornmeal makes up at least half of the ingredients.  This is not the time or the place for cakey cornbread!

Finally, be sure to get your timing down right.  Poached eggs can really get overdone quickly, and cornbread must be served immediately.  It’ll start to loose moisture as soon as it leaves the oven.  So get some boiling water ready for the eggs, but don’t poach them until just before the cornbread is done!

*Note: “Skillet-ing” is a phrase that I use to describe the process of prepping your cast-iron skillet for baking proper cornbread, and yes you need a well seasoned cast-iron skillet.  First of all, your skillet should be hot.  Put it in the oven for a couple minutes.  You don’t want it blazing hot.  Just hot enough for a tablespoon or so of butter to immediately start to melt and sizzle (but not brown).

See where I’m going with this?  Yeah, I thought so.  Pull the skillet out of the oven and drop a tablespoon of butter or so (maybe a little less) into the center.  And put the skillet back in the oven to let the butter melt.  Then pour the cornbread batter into the skillet and throw it into the oven.  Pouring it into an already heated skillet with the melted butter makes all the difference, I promise!