Yesterday’s dinner was a bit of cultural serendipity. I had been working on a long overdue letter to some dear elderly German friends. I would write a bit, let several days go by, write a bit more, let several more days go by, and so on. Yesterday I finally sat myself down for an hour and finished it, just after I had thrown together a new recipe in the slow cooker so we’d have some dinner at the end of what promised to be a busy day.
As I often do, I began with an ingredient I needed to find a use for, in this case a package of Kielbasa. I also had a bag of sauerkraut, so I googled “recipe kielbasa sauerkraut soup” and up popped a strange-sounding combination of ingredients in a recipe whose prep instructions were along the lines of “combine all ingredients in crockpot and cook on low for 10-12 hours.” That was exactly the level of effort my day required, and I had all of the ingredients. Despite my reservations about an authentic German dish containing a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup, I banished doubts in favor of pragmatism and just got on with it.
Later, as all of us except the sauerkraut-hater were thoroughly enjoying the results (and even he wasn’t minding much), I reconsidered the can of cream-of issue in a common German recipe. I think Americans tend to have something of an inferiority complex when it comes to things culinary. We have been portrayed as a nation of box-openers and can-dumpers — sometimes deservedly so — and the desire to contradict such notions has some of us feeling guilty whenever we “resort” to convenience products of any kind. I think we imagine cooks in other countries making literally everything from scratch — rolling their pasta dough by hand, butchering their own poultry, and curing their own sausages. And some people do do that, of course, here and “there,” but most people also take advantage of convenience products to make cooking quicker, easier, and in some cases, even tastier.
The wife of the couple I was writing to is a good example. Helga is in her late seventies and has cooked every day for the past fifty years. She is an exemplary hausfrau — all is tidy and clean in their apartment, she grows lettuce on the inner side and flowers on the outer side of their balcony plant boxes, and she make delicious meals. When I finally became a close enough friend to be invited behind the door of her kitchen, I was surprised to find her using bouillon powders, packets of seasoning for potatoes, and even a mix for spaetzle. Everyone has used these things for years, she informed me. In fact, when she was trying to share some of her best recipes with me, she admonished me, “If you cannot get the Maggi seasoning, you must leave it out, but it will not be as good, Lori.”
I thought of that conversation while I ate our dinner. It was so much like Helga’s food; in fact, she had made something similar for our family when she and Guenter were visiting us here in the US. She had complained at the time that she did not have the correct ingredients, but she was unable to describe what was missing. I wonder if I had pulled out a can of Campbells Cream of Mushroom if she wouldn’t have brightened up and dumped it right into her stew.
Now get up and go cook something good.
Adapted from an anonymous internet recipe
2 cans (about 4 c.) of low-sodium chicken broth
1 can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1 lb. bag of sauerkraut, rinsed and very well drained
1 large potato, peeled and cut into medium dice
1 medium onion, small-diced
2 stalks celery, sliced
1 lb. Kielbasa, halved lengthwise and sliced into half-moons
2 T. apple cider vinegar
2 t. dried dillweed
½ t. ground black pepper
NO ADDED SALT
Combine all ingredients in a slow cooker, cover, and cook on low for 10-12 hours. Serve with rye bread and sliced apples for an easy but hearty dinner.