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Tuesday, April 23

Gapers Block

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The last several years, my friends and I have spent more time thinking about New Year's Eve dinner than New Year's Day dinner, but this year I've been bitten by a nostalgia bug and I'm reminded of the traditional dinner my mother makes on New Year's Day and has as long as I can remember. I haven't had it in seven or eight years, but I remember it fondly. My attempts at making it, while good, aren't the same as hers.

It's simple, basic, comfort food with a German twist. I'm not sure that it is a specifically German dinner, but it certainly tastes that way. Each part of the meal is symbolic and intended to provide good tidings for the new year. The theory is that by eating each of the items on the first day of the year, it will provide a year of plenty in each of the represented areas.

The main ingredient for dinner is a pork roast, as large as you can afford. In my mother's standard fashion, leftovers would be turned into a variety of dishes, if there were any. The roast represents "the meat of life." The ability to purchase a roast after Christmas was seen as a reason to be thankful and hopeful that the new year would be a healthy one. My mother would cook use a braising method in a Crock-Pot that made it tender and juicy. My friend's mothers would often roast it using dry heat in the oven. My mother's method is the best, of course.

The next ingredient is potatoes. Mashed potatoes, or potatoes cubed and seasoned with salt, pepper, butter, and parsley, or baked potatoes with sour cream and butter and salt and pepper. The method changed each year, but my favorite was mashed, because my mother would make gravy, and her gravy makes me do the happy dance. Potatoes are just as much a part of German cuisine as they are a part of Irish cuisine. If eaten with the skins they're fairly nutritious. Potatoes represent the main sustenance needed to get through the year. With just a few extra spices or ingredients, bland potatoes can be flavorful. With a little extra effort, the routine of life can be made more exciting.

Sauerkraut. I told you this was a German-themed dinner. Sauerkraut reminds us that life has it's sour moments. It also reminds us that those sour moments provide benefit. Sauerkraut is shredded cabbage that has been pickled and fermented so it also shows us that with a little planning, a surplus of something can be preserved and made to last.

The balance to the sauerkraut was a loaf of hearty rye bread, purchased from the grocery store or occasionally a bakery. This was used to sop up left-over gravy or other drippings left on the plate, because nothing should go to waste. Frugality was a very common theme growing up, and it is a theme I try to remember still. After eating sauerkraut, a bite of rye tastes sweet.

Notice there were no vegetables above. Lots of starch and meat. While many people considered sauerkraut a vegetable, my mother didn't. So she would make us eat lima beans. They may represent something, but I honestly don't know what it would be. My friends didn't have to eat them, so I hated them and told Mom they were untraditional. My mother would tell me that I didn't get dessert until I'd finished my lima beans.

We rarely ate dessert after meals. Which meant that we'd pinch our noses and eat the lima beans. Dessert was some form of baked apples. Dessert ends the meal to give us hope that each day of the year will have at least a few minutes of sweetness. Apples were used because they were close to the end of their shelf-life (from the days before refrigerators were common) and any apples that remained after New Year's day were turned into applesauce. Some form of sliced apples would find their way into a pie or a strudel or, if my mom had the desire (or wheedling from her kids), she would make whole baked apples.

Braised pork roast
1 3-5 pound pork roast (it's going to have a layer of fat on at least one side, but don't cut it off and throw it away)
1 onion, peeled and cut into quarters which are separated
1 stalk of celery, remove the leaves and cut into 4 or 5 chunks.
2 14 ounce cans of chicken or vegetable broth
2 cloves of garlic
5-7 whole peppercorns
2 tablespoons of salt
1 allspice seed

Heat a skillet over medium high heat. Place the roast fat side down in the skillet and cook for about two minutes. Using tongs or two forks, turn the roast a quarter of a turn and cook for two minutes before repeating with the remaining sides. What this does is sear the meat so the juices stay inside the roast. Since you'll be cooking it in liquid it will also provide a semblance of a crusty exterior. Place the roast in the center bottom of your slow-cooker. When they're a bit cooler, pour the drippings from the skillet into a small bowl and refrigerate them. You'll use this to make the gravy for the mashed potatoes. Add the remaining ingredients to the Crock-Pot, tucking the onion, celery, and garlic evenly around the roast. You should have the roast half to three-quarters covered with liquid. Since it isn't covered completely you'll be flipping it several times throughout the day. Turn it to high and cook it for 4-6 hours. My mother always cooked it very well done, but if you prefer your roast a bit less done you can use a meat thermometer and cook your roast until it reaches 160 degrees F.

Remove the roast from the Crock-Pot and place it on a cutting surface. Take a piece of foil and drape it over the top and let it sit for 10-15 minutes before slicing. This should give you just enough time to make gravy and get condiments on the table. Letting any cut of meat rest will permit the meat fibers to relax as they cool slightly and retain the juices instead of letting the moisture get squeezed out as it's sliced.

Mashed potatoes
1/2 pound of potato per person
1-2 tablespoons of butter per person
Salt and pepper to taste

You can peel the potatoes if you like. My mother kept the skins on, but you're an adult can do what you please. If you leave the potatoes whole you'll have to plan on boiling them for 30-45 minutes. If you're willing to cut them in quarters you can reduce your cooking time to 10-20 minutes. Bring a pot of water to a boil, add the potatoes and reduce the heat to medium. Cover the pan and poke a potato after half the expected cooking time with a fork until it pierces easily and removes without a struggle. Overcooking them just makes them taste soggy. Drain your potatoes and turn them into a large bowl. Add the butter and salt and pepper and you can use a hand masher or a hand-held mixer to create mashed or whipped potatoes. Or, if you like gadgets, you can purchase a potato ricer and make ultra-smooth "mashed potatoes". Let your butter come to room temperature and place that in the ricer first. Squeeze the butter into the bottom of the bowl, add the potatoes a few chunks at a time and squeeze. Once everything has been squeezed simply use a sturdy spoon and stir together. It's a great way to keep your hungry ADD friend occupied. Expect to hear, "It's like a Play-Doh Fun Factory for food."

Refrigerated drippings
Liquid from the Crock-Pot

As much as I'd love to give you measurements on how to make this gravy, I can't because it all depends on the quantity of drippings you have as well as how you like your gravy. A good way to start is by putting the drippings into the skillet and heating them up to medium. You'll add about the same amount of flour to the pan and stir it constantly with a wooden spoon. You should get a thick paste that is stirrable, but not one big clump. You're going to cook this for about 4 minutes while stirring constantly. Put your friends to work setting the table, cause you're occupied until the gravy is finished. Once this mixture, called a roux in France, or a gravy-base if you're at my mom's house, starts to look like toast you're going to add about a cup of cooking liquid to the skillet. You're going to do this slowly while stirring constantly so you don't get lumps. You may want to break out the whisk. Keep stirring until the liquid starts to boil lightly. It should start to thicken up and now you can decide if it is too thick. If it is you can add more liquid. If it is too thick, you can add a large pinch of flour at a time until it is the thickness you like.

Purchase sauerkraut in a jar, or if you're lucky, a bag from the refrigerator section. You'll add this to a small pan and heat it over medium-low heat until it is warm. I've never made this from scratch, but maybe someday.

Purchase a loaf of rye bread. There are lots of bakeries in town, and the Baltic Bakery's goods can be found at most grocery stores in the city.

Baked apples
1 apple per person
1 tablespoon of butter per person
1 tablespoon of brown sugar per person
Ground cinnamon and ginger to taste

Cut the core out of the middle of each apple, but be careful not to cut all the way through the bottom. You'll want to leave the bottom closed so the sweet juices don't run out of the apple. Fill the cored apple with butter, sugar, a large dash of cinnamon and a smaller dash of ginger. Bake on a greased cookie sheet or cake pan for 30-40 minutes at 350 degrees. You can prepare this ahead of time and set it to bake in the oven while people eat. By time your guests think they're full, they'll be willing to find room. Use tongs to remove from pan and be careful not to tip and spill the hot middle. You can serve with a dollop of vanilla ice cream if you desire.

If you have leftovers from this meal, then it means that you'll have a year filled with plenty, which is something we can all hope for.

Speaking of plenty, I want to thank the many columnists who have been stepping in for me over the past few months and writing food columns. We've been without a kitchen since autumn, but we hope to have a kitchen in the next few weeks and the inability to cook has provided me with plenty of time to daydream about the wonderful meals I look forward to cooking. However, if you have a request please feel free to email it to me at I look forward to a friend-filled and good-food-filled New Year. I may even invite you over to eat the meal you've requested.

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