What is it about midwinter that makes us especially keen on “traditions”? Is it because customs are comforting, when the weather and long nights tend to hamper one’s spirits?
About the Annual Party
Anyway, a while back, Sue and I started hosting an annual sauerbraten dinner for the clan. We started by having it on “the Saturday between Christmas and New Year’s,” thinking that it would be most convenient for out-of-town cousins and others who were visiting for the holidays.
But we’ve had a number of years, now, where Christmas and New Year’s fell on weekends, and our solution has been to serve the sauerbraten (and gravy, red cabbage, and potatoes) buffet-style at our New Year’s Eve party.
There are two problems with that, however: First, with all the other party prep and the mutzens, that was more work than we really wanted to do in one day. Second, who wants to eat a hearty beef dinner at a New Year’s Eve party? Our guests would snack on it throughout the evening, and yes, it was a challenge to keep at the correct temperature, etc. (With such light grazing, it was good for leftovers, however.)
But a dinner like this deserves to be “served” and eaten from real plates that rest on a table.
This year, I wanted to have it be a sit-down meal again, but finding time on a weekday between Christmas and New Year’s was challenging. So, long story short, we rescheduled it for later in January. Tomorrow—Sunday the 23rd.
But uh-oh! Now they’re predicting snow. So back to the drawing board; it’s postponed until Monday night. (They should have the streets cleared by then, huh?)
The meat is marinating now, and it can’t sit there forever. So, whether we have guests or not, we’re fixing our sauerbraten on Monday.
Sauerbraten isn’t something you just whip up on a lark; because the meat must be marinated for some days before you cook it, you have to plan for it. I started the meat marinating on Thursday for Sunday.
The marinade is what puts “der sauer” into the sauerbraten. It’s a truly distinctive blend of flavors, and the distinctiveness is one reason it’s such a powerful tradition. Grandma would always make a sauerbraten around Christmastime, and it was always an “event.”
When I was a kid, I didn’t care much for red meat. In fact, I still never crave it. But I remember Grandma’s sauerbraten—her house was the only place we ever had it. I’m sure it wasn’t my favorite thing, but I don’t remember hating it. It was tender enough, and the flavor was “weird,” and anyway, there were other foods being passed that I certainly did like. Mashed potatoes and green beans, for instance. But over time, it grew on me.
By the way, the same goes for cooked red cabbage—it certainly isn’t a “normal” food, but the “kid me” didn’t consider it “bad,” either. It was just one of those ethnic foods that only the people in your family eat, and go nuts over. (If you saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you get this.)
The first time I made sauerbraten—years after Grandma had made her last sauerbraten—I was shocked by the distinctive familiarity of the aroma as it was cooking. You know how certain scents can stop you dead in your tracks—like when it’s early fall, and you’re walking around outdoors, and for the first time in the season you catch the smell of a wood fire. I always feel a pang of nostalgia—even if for just a second.
Thus marinating and cooking a sauerbraten fills this old house with a scent we all associate with bygone days, warmth and conversation and laughter on a winter night.
And . . . because the scent lingers in the house for some weeks after the dinner, each time we step in the door, it reawakens that sense, that diffuse memory of the past.
Starting the Marinade
Here’s what I did Thursday night. First, you combine the ingredients for the liquid part of the marinade: water, apple cider vinegar (come on; Grandma didn’t use wine vinegar, and wine itself was for drinking!), brown sugar, bay leaves, cloves, and other seasonings. (Some people use juniper berries, but I never have. And if I add other secret ingredients, I’ll never tell.) Boil it for ten minutes, stirring occasionally, then let it cool.
Meanwhile, chop up the “veggies” part of the marinade: celery tops, carrots, onions, and some garlic. No, I’m not giving you quantities. You can find other recipes online to start you off.
Also, trim the extraneous fat from your boneless beef chuck roast. I figure a half pound of meat per person, but I also get more so we have leftovers. (Ever had a sauerbraten-and-red-cabbage sandwich? On rye? It’s awesome!) In your grocery cart, it will look like a ton of meat, but it will shrink as it cooks.
(Whenever I make my “sauerbraten” trip to the grocery store and buy eight or ten pounds of beef, my usual quip to the cashier is, “We’re vegetarians. We’re falling off the wagon big-time.” It always draws a laugh.)
The next part is easy: put the meat into big plastic bags (gallon-size zip-bags are perfect), push the veggies all around the meat to allow for circulation of marinade, and pour the cooled marinade over. Seal; massage; then stick into the refrigerator. (I put my bagged sauerbratens into a big plastic Tupperware container so our butter doesn’t start smelling sauerbratenny.)
Visit the meat occasionally during the three to five marinating days, and massage and turn it to get the flavor rubbed in real good.
And yes, by this time, your house will already start smelling like Germany!