Show me the green

They look like happy, fat monsters. Where did I put my googly eyes…

Whoever first had the idea to sell small bunches of herbs in the supermarket was a wily genius. Portioned herbs have got to have the highest profit margin of all the world’s commodities; sure, gold is expensive per gram, but presumably less expensive than the 1.60€ one is expected to pay for three small leaves held together by the world’s smallest elastic band. Plus, gold doesn’t then wilt into inedible sinews just hours after it has been taken home from the shop. German and English supermarkets share this one depressing attribute: all herbs are sold at a heart-stoppingly high markup, packaged in an oversized plastic sarcophagus. It does seem especially cruel in Germany, though, because these are a people who truly love and respect the art of the noble herb.

Herbs play a huge part in the cuisine and the culture over here. From herbal tea (mmm, ok) to herbal remedies (hmm…) they are given the credence they deserve, and anyone with a balcony is essentially a social pariah unless they festoon said balcony with huge bushes of aromatic foliage. Along with bakeries and ‘apothecaries’, there are equally astounding numbers of florists’ scattered along every street, and in every one, amidst the bouquets and the decorative bamboo and the slightly strange wreaths made out of spraypainted lichen, there are always herb plants – interesting and nice herb plants – ready to be taken home and goaded along the rails of a balcony somewhere. It is a joy.

A cup of German herbal tea is nothing like the green-tea-bitterness that one usually encounters in the UK. It is actual real herbs steeped in hot water, and at the best cafés that means a hearty bunch of sage, rosemary, thyme, mint and all sorts in a big hot fragrant vat. It can be quite disarming if you have grown up in a household with English roast dinners; while it certainly tastes healthful and fresh, it is also inescapably like drinking a cup of very bland gravy. 


Of course, if you know the right times and the right places, your access to herbs is joyful and unfettered. In summer, at the start of gherkin season (don’t be ridiculous, of course there’s a gherkin season, you philistine) supermarkets sell vast bunches of dill – for the picklin’ – even including the big yellow polleny flowerheads. The view alone of such a vibrant and pert crop in amongst the usual fruit and veg is something wonderful and exciting, and something you just don’t get in the UK. Nor are the enormous sheaths of herbs you can buy at the Turkish markets, where you will find a bundle of coriander the size of a newborn baby for fifty cents and a cheeky wink. And at the Potsdam Castle there is even a whole planted border where glossy bushes of basil form the central foliage in a bed that margins the front of one of the most spectacular custard-coloured buildings (although naturally one is discouraged from picking the bedding plants and making a quick pesto). 

Anyhew, this all comes around to two recipes which evolved out of a pack of sage I bought last week. Unfortunately I was forced to go to Real to buy it – a supermarket which prides itself on stocking everything you could ever possibly need and which surgically extracts painful wads of cash out of your wallet for the privilege. Having invested in my tiny coffin of priceless leaves, I used a few to make a fancy dinner for my neighbours, and the couple of sprigs I had left over just seemed far too valuable, and simply had to become the centrepiece of all my cooking for the days to come until I had savoured every last cell of their tasty foliage. Strongly herbed, piping and toasty; this is perfect winter fodder. And boy, do we need it over here; it’s hovered around -11ºC for long enough that this morning a quick walk to my workmate’s house became an interesting voyage of discovery where I learnt that one’s gums and eyelids can go perceptibly numb in strong cold winds. I hope you make both of these comforting treats this week and enjoy them with my favourite winter remedy of all: a giant glass of lip-smacking red wine.

Herby stuffed red onions

Vegetarians suffer under the constant tyranny of stuffed vegetables. If it isn’t goat’s cheese or spinach and ricotta, the one thing any vegetarian will invariably be presented with at a restaurant or dinner party is a stuffed something. Not a bad thing, but gets a little old. This is a slightly more unusual variant, though, and the shiny purple skins of the onions makes it a bit of a showstopper too.In short: yummy.

Makes enough for one tasty dinner; multiply quantities depending on how many mouths there are to feed, you popular rascal, you.

2 medium-sized red onions
6 leaves of sage, finely snipped
2 tbsp couscous
4 mushrooms
1 clove garlic
2 tbsp grated parmesan (be generous, the more the better!)
2 tsp dried thyme (or 1tsp fresh)
freshly ground black pepper
olive oil/butter

1. Slice a small amount off the bottom of the onions so they will stand up on a baking sheet without rolling all over the place. Cut a substantial ‘lid’ off the top of the onions. Leave the skin on.
2. With the aid of a small knife and a sharp teaspoon, dig away at the interior of the onions until you have a substantial hole inside each one, with about 2-3 layers of onion making the thickness of the walls. Drizzle a bit of olly oil into each onion and pop into the oven for 10 minutes.
3. Chop up the onion you have excavated along with the mushrooms and the garlic, then sauté in a little butter or oil in a small pan for 5 minutes until the mushrooms have softened and the onion is cooked through. Add the couscous, herbs, papper and parmesan and stir to combine.
4. Take the par-cooked onions out of the oven and fill with the stuffing, then pop the lids on top and bake for 25-30 minutes. (You can pop the leftover stuffing back on the hob in the saucepan and add water, bit by bit, until the couscous is soft, and then serve the onions on a bed of this extra deliciousness).
5. Take the onions out of the oven and serve with veg and a baked potato. Remember, don’t eat the skins!

Velvety ‘lush’room soup – serves 2

This soup is one of the best things I have ever done with an hour of my life. It is stonkingly delicious and good for you. Yes, you really do need the cream. No, you won’t regret it.

1 punnet of mushrooms
1/4 of a head of celeriac
1 medium carrot
2 cloves garlic
2 medium onions
1 small handful dried mushrooms (pricey, I know – your best bet for cheap ones are the Asian supermarkets. Still, if you are waiting for payday (or if you are simply a velociraptor) you won’t go far wrong with a couple of rashers of smoked bacon instead)
8 sage leaves
500ml chicken/vegetable stock
75ml whipping/double cream
1 tbsp white flour
salt and pepper
no potatoes. Seriously, no potatoes. They have no place in any good soup.

1. Chop the mushrooms, onions, celeriac and carrot into small dice, and finely chop the garlic. Sweat everything but the mushrooms in olive oil over a low heat.
2. Add the mushrooms (and the bacon if you are using it) and sprinkle the flour over the top. Continue to stir and cook over low heat until the mushrooms are softened.
3. Add the dried mushrooms, sage leaves (whole) and stock. Simmer very gently for a further 15 minutes until the celeriac and carrot are thoroughly cooked through. 
4. Stir in the cream (add more if you need – it should have a soft, velvety feel to the broth but shouldn’t be over-rich) and add salt and pepper to taste. Make sure the soup is piping hot and serve. If you are a winner, you will have remembered an old lump of baguette in the cupboard and made garlicky croutons. I didn’t have any baguette but it was still good with crackers and cheese.
 
 

  
 

Tit for Zutat (Zutat means ‘ingredient’ in German, it’s a pun, ok?)

Thank god you can at least get Heinz ketchup here. What would be the point of living without Heinz ketchup?

Living in Germany has upsides and downsides; culture shocks and culture clashes; pleasant surprises and painful realisations. But these all pale into insignificance when you finally have to come to terms with the most disturbing fact of all: it’s quite difficult to find baked beans in Berlin.


Not just baked beans, neither. Golden syrup, my beloved precious liquor, the only thing worth putting on your porridge   (though in my case the porridge is more of a garnish). Digestive biscuits. Decent toothpaste. And tea, beautiful fragrant tea, English tea that fills you with peace and tranquil contentment. When you really start to notice it, it’s amazing how many basic products and ingredients aren’t freely available just a quick plane flight from home: Ribena (my guilty pleasure), self-raising flour, celery salt, biological washing powder, lined notebooks – ok, the last one is relatively easy to find, but for some reason it seems that the German majority prefer things squarey.

Mostly this is not a bother; even with my manic temperament I find it hard to get excited about biological washing powder, and frankly I couldn’t care less if I never see another square of dairy milk ever again (Ritter Sport: it’s hip to be square). But sometimes you find yourself standing in the centre of Lidl wondering to yourself how on earth you are going to make your famous recipe for [EXAMPLE] without that one special ingredient that the Deutsche don’t even realise exist. What to do? Sub. Sub and improvise like a boss.

Take my chocolate fridge cake, for example. A classic from a cookbook for children which I was given when I was twelve and could easily rival Gordon ‘Furrow-Face’ Ramsay for the terrific recipes it modestly suggests. This cake is so good it makes nuns tapdance. And that is all partly down to a generous glug of golden syrup. In Germany this can’t be found for love nor money (well, you can get it from specialist stores for a lot of money, but there are limits as to how much of one’s savings should be spent on what is essentially just liquid sucrose). Golden syrup is also essential in flapjacks, crucial for chewy cookies, and – somewhat ironically – my secret ingredient in my famous secret recipe for Nürnberger Lebkuchen. Honey is too strongly flavoured and doesn’t give the same toasty flavour; molasses is too ferocious and black, like a demon hound’s blood; and agave nectar can’t be used for baking because it’s too busy doing Bikram yoga and talking about mindfulness. How to replace this unique amber goo?


 

The best substitute for Golden Syrup in Germany is Zuckerrübensirup, sugar beet syrup. This is an interesting substance. It’s a dark, dark, treacly stuff, either pure or as ‘ÜberRübe’, a sugar-beet and glucose-fructose-syrup hybrid, which makes up for its impurity with its hilarious name. It does the job texture-wise and baking-wise, but has an interesting flavour on its own: a rich and caramelly taste which finishes with the kind of nutty, tannic dryness you get from raw beetroot. Most importantly, it is the stickiest substance known to mankind. While making this fridge cake, I was able to glue the lid to my elbow, my spatula to the lid, a piece of garbage to the floor…you cannot contain it. It coats the entire kitchen in a viscous layer of adhesive tar, and after you have cooked with it, every step you tread across the kitchen floor makes that squeaky ‘unpeeling sticker’ noise. It’s delicious stuff though, and I can imagine a spoonful would make a tremendous addition to a tomato stew or a pot of Greek yogurt. 


As for the chocolate digestives, you have an array of different biscuits of the ‘generic brown’ variety to choose from. Most supermarkets do their own brand of ‘Hafercookies’, oat cookies, which are very nice but can sometimes break your teeth. Another option is Hobbits, a Hobnob-copy with a lurid orange packet that looks like it was designed on Microsoft Paint. You might like to use Butterkeks, which are more like Rich Teas in flavour and appearance, but unlike Rich Teas Butterkeks do not make you wonder what you are doing with your life to be subjecting yourself to such a lamentable excuse for a biscuit. I opted for the Hafercookies in a tribute gesture to the beloved digestives of my homeland, but decided to shake it up by adding in some Spekulatius biscuits, spiced little windmill-shaped things from the Netherlands which appear in Christmas and are sold in enormous packages as heavy as a house brick.

Self-raising flour is a tricky one. Normally you would add baking powder to plain flour, but the internet is full of roughly fifteen million different suggestions for what the proportions ought to be. I use 1 tsp to 100g of flour, as a rule of thumb. However, German baking powder seems to be particularly flimsy – perhaps that’s why German cake tends to be a yeasted, hefty thing you could use to prop a door open – so I tend to add one more teaspoon ‘for the pot’, so to speak.

Other ingredients are interesting because while widely available, they’re also just different enough to behave in a funny way. Whipping cream, for example, has about 7-10% less fat in it than good old British heart-attack whipping cream, so although it does whip up nicely it takes fifteen sweaty minutes of frantic whisking to get there. For this reason the Germans have invited ‘Sahnesteif’, a kind of whipping catalyst, but I refuse to use it on principle; if I wanted weird additives in my cake I wouldn’t bother baking it myself in the first place, and what better way is there to show your love than a big mound of cream whipped with dediated elbow grease alone. Kidney beans are another weird one – and I certainly don’t advocate mixing them with whipped cream wherever the heck you are. Kidney beans in Germany have sugar added to the canning liquid; not enough to make them a delicious pudding, but just enough that they taste disarmingly sickly. Perhaps this is a plus point if you want to puree them and make them into a Vietnamese bean cake, but otherwise it’s a strange and unwelcome addition to something that has its place in wholesome, chunky winter stews et al. Since living in Berlin I have learnt to always rinse my beans (which, incidentally, I hope will one day become a widespread euphemism for something hilarious: “Don’t just stand there rinsing yer beans, get a bloody move on!”).

It’s an adventure in my little Berlin kitchen, and usually the results aren’t too unpleasant; the chocolate fridge cake, with the substitutes of Zuckerrübensirup, Spekulatius and Hafercookies, a generous heap of quality German chocolate and topped off with some Gummibärchen (does that count as fusion cookery?) disappeared effortlessly down people’s gullets, and I can still make a mean Chili sin Carne. Whipping the occasional pot of cream now counts as exercise, which is keeping me trim, and my cakes do rise obediently for me despite the lack of proper SR flour. You just have to know how and what to sub. And maybe in the end give up and go and buy a cake from Lidl instead.

***Super-chocolate-fridge-cake (Schoko-Keks-Kühlschrank-Kuchen)***

200g plain chocolate
100g butter
5 tbsp golden syrup/light Zuckerrübensirup
225g of your favourite biscuits
4 tbsp mixed dried fruits (try to throw in at least a few glacé cherries if you can – candied ginger is also a winner here)
4 tbsp of your favourite nuts
A hefty pinch of salt
Gummibärchen to taste

1. Melt the chocolate, butter and syrup in 20-second bursts in the microwave, stirring in between, and then give them another quick burst once melted to fudgify them.
2. Pound the biscuits into crumbs and rubble of different sizes, and stir in the fruits and nuts.
3. Mix in the chocolate gloriousness, and stir until thoroughly combined. 
4. Pour into a baking tray lined with parchment and press the mix down with a cold metal spoon so that it is nicely compacted.
5. Arrange gummy bears (or other confectionery) on top according to your personal aesthetic taste.
6. ‘Bake’ in the fridge for 2 hours or so to firm up, then cut into smallish chunks – warning, this is outrageously rich.

Guten Appetit!