Beyond sauerkraut - Where to find great German recipes

Sep 28, 2007 at 9:29 p.m. ET

To some people, German food is less a meal than the introduction to an afternoon nap. The stereotypes -- sausages, schnitzel and sauerkraut -- don't extend very far. But German food is so much more!

The real thing

German food is more than a few heavy dishes, sodden with gravy and starch, all too often overcooked in American restaurants, or with so many corners cut that the dish bears no resemblance to the original. Our perceptions of German food are also affected, I suspect, by Midwest interpretations of ancestral recipes and by the presence of US servicemen in Germany -- most of whom were stationed in Bavaria. That's like judging American cooking only by Louisiana; good food, sure, but you won't encounter the specialties from other areas, such as knishes or Texas barbecue.

German food, like Italian or Chinese or Indian, has regional variations, historical evolution and a growing awareness of health and diet issues. All of those are reflected in German cookbooks. Here's a short introduction to my favorites.

The grande olde dame of German cookbooks is Mimi Sheraton's The German Cookbook: A Complete Guide to Mastering Authentic German Cooking. While it's the most likely German cookbook found on bookstore shelves, it isn't on mine. That's not because Sheraton wrote a bad book (she didn't) but because the text is so dated. Like so many cookbooks published in the 1970s, when now-common vegetables were hard to find and readers had to be cajoled into trying something new, the recipes are more "for the American kitchen" rather than authentic. For instance, the German fresh cheese Quark (think of yogurt-meets-ricotta) was completely unavailable at the time, so Sheraton makes substitutions.

Instead, I'm more likely to reach for the New German Cookbook by Jean Anderson and Hedy Wurz. Its recipes are lighter, without making low-fat tradeoffs that reduce your dinner to a pale shadow of the traditional dish. You'll find no compromises in "Celery root and apple salad with dill-mustard dressing" or "Medallions of pork with mushrooms in cognac cream sauce." The "traditional" German dishes are here, too, such as sauerbraten (a beef pot roast marinated in red wine for up to five days) and maultaschen (Germany's answer to ravioli).

Anderson and Wurz's emphasis is on freshness and quality, as in most recent cookbooks of any ethnic persuasion, rather than "like Grandma used to make." There's an extensive ingredient glossary (which introduces you to the German love affair with white asparagus) and an enlightening chapter on wine and beer.

For heavier fare (both intellectual and on the plate), I turn a page back into history. Horst Scharfenberg's The Cuisines of Germany traces the evolution of German recipes, often providing hand-written instructions from the 16th century along with modern variations, and he emphasizes regional specialties. Reading his recipes is a peephole into time as well as directions for your next dinner party. About jugged hare, for instance, he writes:

"This most famous of traditional German game dishes presents certain problems for those who have difficulty getting hold of fresh hare's blood, which the traditional recipes call for; any other kind of blood would do as well, I'm sure, but many of us would just as soon not pursue the matter any further. Luckily, a solution is at hand -- a fresh, smooth blutwurst can provide the same rich flavor and sufficient binding without disturbing our contemporary sensibilities too much."

The food does not take a back seat to history. The author provides more than a page of instructions on the proper way to prepare sp�tzle, Germany's fresh pasta. Yet, the description is complete rather than intimidating; after reading the how-to, even a beginner will attack the job confidently. I've had success with several recipes, from "Red cabbage with bacon and apple," to Frankfurt's "Green sauce" (a yogurt-onion-herb sauce delightfully overwhelmed by fresh herbs, served over boiled potatoes), to rindsrouladen (beef rolls stuffed with bacon, pickles and vegetables).

Regretfully out of print is Hannelore Kohl's A Culinary Voyage Through Germany. If you cook for a meat-and-potatoes crowd, go out of your way to find this book. While the regionally-organized cookbook has one of the worst indexes I've encountered, and nearly every recipe starts with frying onions and bacon, the book is chock-full of family dinner possibilities. "Pork goulash with beer and mustard-pickled gherkins" and "Harz potato salad" are delicious and easy to throw together -- grab a bottle of Riesling and supper's ready.

The dearth of really great German cookbooks has, I confess, led me to desperate measures. That is, I bought a German cookbook that's written in German: Kochen mit den Fallers by Hans-Abert Stechl. It's been worth the effort of laborious translation to decipher their recipes for maultaschen (stuffed this time with trout, accompanied by a chervil sauce) or chicken breasts saut�ed in Riesling and mushrooms.

Savvy readers may have noticed that I never mentioned recipes for schnitzel, sausage or sauerkraut. Those are all part of German cuisine -- but they're not the only part.