Chefs Jeremy and Jessica Nolen are working to change the perception of German cuisine, one buckwheat spaetzle at a time. The owners of the popular Brauhaus Schmitz and Wurst Schmitz in Philadelphia use their restaurant to apply contemporary cooking sensibilities to traditional German American fare.
Now they’re doing the same for home cooks. In “New German Cooking” (Chronicle Books, $40), the husband-and-wife duo infuse a fresh, seasonal spin on a long-overlooked cuisine. Riesling-braised chicken? Semolina noodles with cabbage and onions? Radish salad with sheep’s milk cheese? A 10-spice apple strudel? They’re the tip of the Nolens’ culinary iceberg, a 100-plus recipe arsenal that takes readers well beyond the notion of ponderous German cooking.
In a recent telephone conversation, Jeremy Nolen discussed sausage-making, the wisdom of marinades and an inventive use for leftover pumpernickel bread.
Q: The Twin Cities area, like Philadelphia, is home to a huge number of people with German ancestry, yet that cultural heritage isn’t much reflected in the local culinary scene. Why is that?
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A: That’s the situation in most American cities. Some of it is due to restaurants that have been around for a long time and they haven’t adapted to change; they haven’t modernized. All food was so different in the 1960s and 1970s. Even Italian and French was really basic. But for some reason, German food stagnated, and for the most part, it never evolved the way other cuisines evolved. I’m not sure why.
Q: What does the phrase “New German” mean to you?
A: A lot of it is taking inspiration from classic German ingredients and techniques, and taking it to a different level. It’s my German-inspired cooking here in the United States. It’s not a compendium of the cooking found in modern German restaurants.
Q: What do you tell people who are apprehensive about making sausage?
A: If you can make meat loaf, you can make sausage. You’re really just mixing seasonings into meat. With sausage, the only big difference is stuffing it into casings. That takes some skill, especially if you’re going to be fast at it. But it’s not terribly difficult. It will take some practice, but if it’s not something you want to do, you can always make a sausage patty. It will taste totally different from the sausage with casing, but it will still be delicious. But making sausage? It’s definitely worth it.
In Germany, there are so many different kinds of sausages. Here in the United States, we have, like, five. So if I see sausage that I’ve never heard of, I order it. We make sausage here at the restaurant because most of the store-brought bratwurst that I’ve had just isn’t that great. It’s usually really bland. Our version ramps up the spices, and they’re very popular.
Q: You mentioned that the restaurants sell about 15,000 pretzels a year, so they’re obviously an easy-to-prepare item for you. What do you say to the pretzel-making novice?
A: They’re not terribly difficult. Making the shape is sometimes tricky at first. In the book, we worked hard to explain making that shape. Even if you don’t make the shape, you can make pretzel rolls, and they'll still be good. The only challenging thing is the lye. People don’t know where to buy it. We have a where-to-buy section in the book. It’s not as dangerous as it sounds, and it’s absolutely the key to making a real German pretzel. Baking soda and water just don’t work. The pretzels don’t come out the same.
Q: Where did the idea of a pumpernickel brownie originate?
A: Because it’s a dark bread, we serve a lot of pumpernickel at the restaurant. That inevitably leads to leftovers every night, and we’re always trying to come up with a way to use those leftovers. We thicken our beer-cheese soup with rye bread, we use pumpernickel crumbs on salads for texture, we make pretzel croutons. We got to thinking: Brownies use a dark chocolate, and pumpernickel is dark. These brownies aren’t American brownies, like the Betty Crocker box mix. These brownies have a chew to them, because of the bread in them. The texture isn’t soft, it’s fudgy and crumbly, and really interesting.
Our beer- and pickle juice-marinated chicken was another use of leftovers. We go through lots of pickles at the restaurant, which means we have lots of leftover pickle juice. At first we tried using it to re-pickle things, but the end result just wasn’t the same. So we decided to use the pickle juice as a brine. We tried pork and beef, but chicken eventually won out. It takes the flavor best, and when you add that hoppy beer taste, it just comes out great.
Q: You’ve got a lot of marinades in the book. Is that a key technique in your kitchen?
A: Sauerbraten is one of the most popular dishes in Germany; it’s traditionally marinated a week to 10 days. That said, we wouldn’t say that this is super-common in German cooking. But to us, it seems a natural way to impart flavor into chicken and rabbit and pork.
Q: This is your first cookbook. As a restaurant chef, what were the challenges of writing recipes for home cooks?
A: I’ve been cooking for a long time, and I take for granted that I work with equipment like high-Btu burners and deep fryers. Restaurant equipment is stronger, and bigger, and it’s a matter of getting it down to making it work at home. I made most of the book’s recipes at home, in our kitchen, but even at home I have restaurant-quality pots and pans, and that makes me different from the average home cook.
I also take for granted that, as a chef, I work in large batches. Our normal brat recipe is 40 pounds, and we make that every day. For the home cook, you have to take that and divide it by 10, and when you do that, it doesn’t translate perfectly; there have to be adjustments.
Q: I'll admit that I was a bit disappointed that you call for commercially prepared phyllo dough for that beautiful apple strudel recipe. Is that bowing to the inevitable need for convenience?
A: We contemplated putting a recipe for phyllo dough into the book, but we didn’t think anyone would do it. Making that dough is a task, and you really have to know what you’re doing. We couldn’t imagine anyone taking over their whole dining room table to stretch the dough. At the restaurant, we dry-cure our own salami and our own ham, but for the book we thought no one is going to dry-cure salami for six months in a converted refrigerator.
Q: Have you always had a thing for German food?
A: I was born in California, and my dad got a job in Reading, Pa. – which is heavily German – when I was 4. Both of my parents are of German ancestry, and we started going to Oktoberfest and to German restaurants, so I was emersed in that culture when I was young, and I’ve been going to those events and those restaurants since I was a kid. I’ve always liked the culture – it’s so interesting to me – and the cuisine. We’ve been to Germany a number of times, but we didn’t travel for the book. Our inspiration comes from taking the flavors and traditions from German cuisines and making food, here in the United States, from that.
Beer and cheese soup
Note: From “New German Cooking,” by Jeremy and Jessica Nolen. The authors recommend using a malty dark lager for this soup, as hoppier beers will turn it bitter.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 small leek, white and green parts, diced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 small carrot, peeled and diced
1 celery rib, diced
36 ounces double-bock beer (see note)
1 pound Emmentaler or Gruyere cheese, grated
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
Leaves from 3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus extra for garnish
2 slices hearty rye bread, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons freshly chopped chives
Heat a Dutch oven or stockpot over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Add butter, onion, leek, garlic, carrot and celery, and cook, stirring often, until vegetables have softened and are lightly browned, about 6 minutes. Add beer, cheese, Worcestershire, thyme, salt and 1 teaspoon pepper and stir well. Bring to a boil, stirring often, then reduce heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes, stirring often. Add bread and continue to cook, stirring often, until bread softens, about 15 minutes.
Remove pan from heat and let soup cool slightly. Working in batches, transfer soup to a blender and process on medium speed until completely smooth, about 2 minutes.
Over low heat, return soup to pot and gently reheat until hot. Ladle soup into individual bowls, sprinkle with chives and a dusting of pepper, if desired, and serve immediately.