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Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008 03:44 pm

A taste of Deutschland delectables in Pawnee

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For decades, German-Americans were a dominant group in Illinois. Waves of German immigrants flocked to the Midwest in the 1840s and 1850s, and nowhere was that more evident than in central Illinois. It was not uncommon for German to be the predominant language in entire communities. According to noted Lincoln historian David Herbert Donald, Abraham Lincoln "secretly owned" the German language Springfield newspaper, Illinois Staats-Anzeiger, through which he could connect with his German-American constituency, and presumably promulgate his pro-Republican viewpoint. Lincoln purchased the paper in May, 1859, and sold it after being elected president.

In 1910, the U.S. census showed that Germans were the largest group of foreign-born residents in Illinois.

Why does so little evidence of this area's rich Germanic heritage remain? I'd guess it's because of the two World Wars. My grandmother used to tell stories about her German mother, who'd emigrated with her parents when she was three years old, and her father, whose background was also German. Before WWI, they'd been proud of their heritage. But my grandmother remembered being repeatedly warned during the First World War to never, ever, mention that they were German (although their last name, Doerfler, had to have been a dead giveaway), and speaking German at home became verboten.

Fortunately, the ban didn't affect their eating habits, and my grandmother cooked, and taught my mother and me to prepare, many dishes she'd learned from her mother. Nana made her own sauerkraut, and occasionally would dig out her big stone crock into which she'd immerse a beef roast for a days-long soak in red wine, wine vinegar, herbs, and spices for an exotic-tasting sauerbraten. There was sieskraut, a delicious mash of cabbage and potatoes, and the spinach that remains my favorite vegetable preparation to this day.

My husband, Peter, also has German in his background and took German in high school, masterminding a plot in 1968 to replace all the traffic signs in his suburban town of Arlington Heights with ones in German, which earned a headline in the local paper: "Creative Vandals Create Downtown Havoc." He was never caught, and, as far as I know, this is the first time the perpetrator of the crime has been publicly revealed. Hopefully, the statute of limitations has run out.

I'd taken German in high school, too, but my motivation was less due to my heritage than that the German teacher was reputed to be friendly and fun, while the French teacher (the only two languages offered) was demanding and difficult.

Our first dinner party after we were married was for Peter's German club at the U of I (UC). It was a complete success, except for the sauerbraten: when Peter reached for a yellow box to thicken the gravy, he grabbed the baking soda instead of the cornstarch; whisking it into the wine and vinegary pan juices, he created a purple volcano that seemed as if it would never stop.

Folks who don't have a treasure trove of German family recipes — or those who do and don't have the time or inclination to make them — can sample Richard Dirksen's at the German Buffet he'll be serving at The Coal Miner's Hideaway in Pawnee Oct. 21through 26. Dirksen's family hails from the tiny hamlet of German Valley near Rockford; the legendary late Senator Everett Dirksen was a distant relative. He's been in the restaurant business in one way or another since the early 1980s, beginning as a busser. "I just fell in love with the food industry," he says. "I've pretty much done it all."

By 2005 he was managing a country club in Charleston, Ill. It was there that Dirksen got the idea for his German Buffet. "It was kind of a blue-collar country club, and a lot of the members had a German background," he says. Dirksen dug out his notebook filled with family recipes, and produced such a lavish spread that the buffet was an immediate hit. The periodic German feasts "turned into the big social events" of the club.

When Dirksen and his wife, Deb, took the opportunity to buy their own place, they brought their German Buffet with them to Pawnee. It's offered four weeks throughout the year: the weeks of Labor Day and Memorial Day, in October for Oktoberfest, and in mid-December for Weihnachts (Christmas).

When I asked what kinds of dishes he'd be serving, Dirksen replied, "I can tell you exactly what'll be on the menu if you want." "Fine, go ahead," I said, and then felt my eyes growing wider and wider as the list grew longer and longer.

Here's Dirksen's menu:

Pork chops with a sauce of sour cream,

onions, and horseradish

Three kinds of sausages – weisswurst, knackwurst,

and bratwurst, all made especially for Dirksen

by Eickman's butcher shop in Seward, Ill.

Grandma Jenny's Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage

Bavarian-style sauerkraut with caraway

Sauerbraten

Spaetzle (made fresh each day) with

gingersnap gravy

Jaegerschnitzel – Dirksen breads cubes of pork

rather than pounding them thin (as is

traditional) and serves them with a

brown jaeger (hunter) sauce.

Hot German potato salad

Potato pancakes

Beirock casserole

Onion pie

Beef and cabbage soup

House-made cherry and apple strudel

Oh, I almost forgot: There's also a full salad bar (all the dressings are made in-house) just in case anyone has room. Wow! The price for this feast is a mere $12.95 per person – double wow!

The German Buffets are extremely popular and reservations are a must. The Oktoberfest buffet will be offered from 5 – 8 p.m., Oct. 21 – 25 and from 4-7 p.m. on Oct. 26. The Weihnachts buffet will be offered December 16 – 21, and reservations for those dates can be made starting in November. Be sure to go with an empty stomach!

The Coal Miner's Hideaway is at 622 6th Street in Pawnee. Phone: 217-625-8271

When I asked if I could print one of his recipes, Dirksen quickly agreed: "A lot of people ask for them, and I always give them out," he says. As I flipped through the pages of his battered notebook, it was obvious that Dirksen hadn't been fooling when he said that most were family recipes. The pages that had yellowed with age, the notes in the margins, and various splotches and stains all testified to their long history.

Of all the dishes that Dirksen told me would be on the menu, the bierock casserole was the only one with which I was completely unfamiliar. Dirksen says that the original recipe for this specialty uses the meat and cabbage mixture as a filling for individual puff pastry turnovers. For his German Buffet, however, Dirksen modified it to make a large "pie" that can be cut into serving pieces. Either way, it's delicious.

BIEROCK CASSEROLE

2 sheets puff pastry

Beaten egg for brushing the pastry

5 c. shredded cabbage

Water

1 1/4 lbs. ground beef

1 T. butter

11/2 T. prime rib seasoning OR salt, pepper,

and garlic powder to taste

1 T. Düsseldorf, Dijon or other brown

(non-ball park) mustard

3 T. flour

1 c. grated cheese such as jack or cheddar

or a combination

Preheat the oven to 350°. Line the bottom of a 9"X 13" baking dish with one of the sheets of puff pastry, cutting it to fit as needed. Brush with some of the beaten egg and partially bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature while you prepare the filling.

Place the cabbage and 1/2 cup water in a large pan with a close-fitting lid. Cover the pan and place over medium high heat and let the cabbage "sweat" (soften), stirring occasionally, until it is wilted and somewhat translucent, 5 – 10 minutes.

In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium high heat. Add the onion and sauté, stirring frequently, until it becomes translucent and just begins to brown. Add the ground beef and continue to sauté, breaking it up as it browns so that it is thoroughly crumbled.

When the meat is nearly browned through, add the seasoning and mustard and mix thoroughly. If using the salt, pepper, and garlic powder instead of the prime rib seasoning, add sparingly; you can adjust the seasoning later.

Sprinkle the flour over the meat mixture and toss to combine. Let the mixture cook for a couple of minutes to take away the raw taste of the flour.

Stir in 1/3c. water, then add the cabbage along with the liquid in the pan and mix together thoroughly. Adjust the seasonings to taste*.

To assemble: Spread the beef and cabbage filling evenly over the par-baked sheet of puff pastry. Sprinkle the grated cheese over the meat mixture.

Cut small slits evenly in the remaining sheet of puff pasty and cover the casserole with it, sealing the edges along the sides of the baking dish. Brush the pastry with the beaten egg, and bake for about 40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the bierock is completely heated through in the middle. Let stand at least 15 minutes before cutting into squares or rectangles. Serves 6 – 8 or more as part of a larger meal.

*At this point the casserole can be assembled immediately and baked as below, or the beef mixture can be cooled and the final assembly completed just before baking. If you're making the mixture more than an hour or so ahead, it should be refrigerated, then brought to room temperature before the final assembly. The casserole can also be put together and then frozen. If freezing make sure the meat mixture is completely cooled before assembling; then tightly wrap the casserole. The bierock will take at least 15-20 minutes longer to bake from the frozen state.

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