I grew up in Arlington Heights, a suburb about 30 miles from Chicago. Depending on traffic, driving downtown could take up to an hour, so our trips into the city were infrequent and usually reserved for special occasions. Once a year for my birthday, my father would take me to one of Chicago's museums or Wrigley Field for a Cubs game. For lunch, we'd always go to the Berghoff, a venerable Chicago German restaurant that had been around since 1898.
The dark-oak interior of the Berghoff was adorned with vintage murals depicting old Chicago and the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the stately dining rooms were always crowded during lunch. My father wisely opted to take his fidgety, hyperactive son into the swifter-moving adjacent Berghoff Bar for a sandwich and a frosty stein of Berghoff root beer. The deep, narrow bar room had no chairs, just a long bar with a brass footrail. You'd order your food from the sandwich station and try to find an open place to stand at the bar. Before I grew tall enough, my father would lift me and sit me on the bar top. I'd always order the sauerbraten sandwich on rye. Sauerbraten is a German pot roast that has been marinated for several days in red wine and vinegar. The long marination period tenderizes the beef and imparts a sweet-sour flavor. To this day, it's remained one of my favorite food memories from my childhood.
Back then, the Berghoff Bar was a men's-only establishment. A small sign stated that it was a "Gentleman's Stand Up Bar." The ban on women ended in 1969 when several members of the National Organization for Women entered the bar and demanded service, which they were granted. Gloria Steinem, the organization's head, stopped by for a photo op a few days later. The bar has been desegregated ever since.
I was married 50 years ago, during the summer between my sophomore and junior years at the University of Illinois. The year was 1973 and I was only 20. We lived in a mobile home off-campus and were the only ones among our friends with a big enough place to host a dinner party. I invited my German class over for an Oktoberfest dinner and tried to re-create my beloved Berghoff Sauerbraten.
When my guests arrived, I was well into my second glass of Ernest and Julio Gallo's Rhine Wine, a step up from Boone's Farm. The legal age for buying wine and beer had just dropped from 21 to 18. I hadn't yet mastered the art of cooking and socializing at the same time (that didn't happen until I had kids), and my young brain was a bit impaired from the wine, so when I reached for the yellow box of cornstarch to thicken the gravy for my sauerbraten, I grabbed the wrong, but similar-looking, yellow box, which turned out to be baking soda. The guests started shouting – in German and English – as a volcanic river of purple foam began gushing out of the sauerbraten pot onto the stovetop and down to the floor. By accidentally mixing the sauerbraten's acidic vinegar and red wine marinade with baking soda, I had inadvertently re-created my grade-school science fair demonstration of what happens when you combine an acid with a base.
After the purple foam subsided, I did the best I could with the remaining marinade, but my gravy lacked brightness and acidity. It was 50 years before I gave sauerbraten another try.
Be sure to plan ahead. This preparation needs several days to marinate in the fridge.
For the marinade:
1 cup red wine vinegar
2 cups red wine
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 bay leaves, crumbled
6 whole cloves
2 cloves garlic, smashed
Peel from 1 lemon (remove with a vegetable peeler)
2 cups coarsely chopped onion
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
3 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, coarsely chopped
A handful of parsley stems
2-6 pounds of beef roast suitable for braising, such as top round, chuck roast or brisket To braise the beef:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil or bacon fat
2 cups low sodium beef stock, plus additional if necessary
To make the gravy:
6 gingersnap cookies, placed in a plastic bag and crushed
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Combine the ingredients for the marinade in a large nonreactive container big enough to hold both the meat and marinade; stir to dissolve the salt and sugar, and put a small plate on top to keep the beef submerged. Refrigerate for 3-5 days, turning the beef once or twice daily.
Take the beef from the refrigerator two hours before beginning to braise it. Strain the marinade into a saucepan. Pat the meat dry, put it on a rack, and let it come to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 325° F.
Combine the strained marinade and beef stock in a saucepan and place on low heat.
In a large nonreactive Dutch oven or pot with a tight-fitting lid big enough to hold the roast, heat the oil over medium-high heat until it is hot but not smoking.
Put the beef in the pot and brown the top and bottom well. Remove the meat and pour off any excess fat. Place the beef back in the pot and add enough stock and marinade so that the liquid comes about 1/3 of the way up the roast.
Bring the pot to a boil, then cover with lid and braise in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. Turn the meat, replace the lid, and continue braising until the meat is very tender, at least another 1 1/2 hours or longer, depending on the roast's size. Throughout the entire cooking time, baste with the marinade/stock about every 30 minutes.
Remove the meat from the pot and keep it warm. Stir in the crushed ginger snaps and bring to a boil. Whisk the cornstarch with a little water to create a slurry. A bit at a time, add the cornstarch slurry to the pot, whisking constantly until the gravy thickens.
Slice the sauerbraten against the grain and place it on a warm platter. If necessary, strain the sauce again. Serve the sauerbraten with some of the gravy spooned over the slices; pass the remaining gravy separately.
Leftover sauerbraten makes wonderful sandwiches.