An American Cook

The following is, more or less, the latest article I’ve written for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper, which runs today on the food page.

An American Cook in Europe
for the Santa Fe New Mexican
by Christopher J. Kolon

Years ago I had the opportunity to take a position as Chef Entremetier at a resort in Switzerland. What an eye-opener that was for this young, dreamy American chef.

I was forced to put aside my fantasies…

…of how real European chefs cook in order to discover the real thing. The experience exposed me to the origins of my craft and helped me understand why we cook the way we do. It also gave me a confidence and appreciation for American cooking and changed the direction of my career.

Now, many years later and no longer a professional chef, I find myself again living in Europe, a happily married husband and passionate home cook.

What an eye-opener this has been!

Things really are different here. People shop differently, cook differently and eat differently than we do at home in Santa Fe. Sure, there are some similarities (grocery store aisles filled with American soft drinks, for instance), but mostly I feel I have been beamed to another planet where people eat dinner for lunch, the average housewife knows the recipes of twelve different kinds of Christmas cookies by heart and no one cares that not one single store is open on Sunday.

I have found this experience endlessly fascinating and frustrating. But, bottom line, it has helped me see the way I cook with a new pair of glasses, and has made me a better chef and a more relaxed diner.

I want to share my experiences with you in this occasional column.

We live in Graz, Austria, which is located 2 hours south of Vienna in a central part of Europe that is influenced by many, nearby culinary traditions. Italy, Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Croatia are all no more than a four-hours drive away. Believe me, there is some good, authentic cooking here.

Which is why, maybe, in this city of 250,000, I couldn’t find a can of chicken stock to save my life.

I mean I should have known better. Oma would have never used canned chicken stock for her delicious Mushroom Soup with Sterz.

Oma was my wife’s grandmother who sadly passed away earlier this year. She was a doyen of the stoves, a storehouse of Austrian culinary lore. Already 89 when I knew her, she was a sweet, gentle woman who seemed to live to cook for her family. Really.

“What are we having for lunch today?” I asked my future wife one day early in our courtship.

“Well, I ordered schnitzel.”


“Yes, I ordered schnitzel, spaetzle and soup from grandmother.”

It seemed that Oma happily waited around for one of her children or grandchildren to call her up and ask her to cook something. Then she’d bust out some incredible, mouth-watering goodies and we’d stop by to visit for a while and take our lunch home. I called it Grandmother’s Catering Service. It was love in a Tupperware container.

My favorite dish was Soup with Sterz. Sterz is a grain, sometimes polenta, but most often buckwheat, that is cooked and then fried and eaten with a rich soup, usually chicken and mushroom enriched with a little sour cream. To eat it, you take a little sterz on your spoon and dip it into your soup and then spoon both into your mouth. Crunchy, rich, earthy, for me, it is the essence of good country cooking.

Well, grandmother passed away and we were going to make Chicken/mushroom Soup with sterz ourselves for the first time. I thought I’d cheat and go to the store for some chicken stock. No such luck.

There was every manner of awful dried bullion and powdered soup broth, but few canned products and absolutely no stock. I was flabbergasted. No Trader Joe’s Organic Chicken Broth, no Lawton’s, MSG-free canned chicken stock? What’s wrong with these people? I thought.

When I got home and complained to my wife, she just smiled, pityingly shook her head and grabbed a package of meaty chicken bones (1 Kilo, $1.80) from the freezer. She plopped them into her pressure cooker (an essential kitchen implement here), threw in an onion and a carrot, some water and a bay leaf, and in an hour we had rich stock.

The professional chef in me cringed with embarrassment; how easily I had become accustomed to all the convenient products we have in our stores at home. I took for granted that I could find the same gourmet, additive-free products here.

And I could. I was just looking in the wrong place. What is more gourmet and additive-free, after all, than real chicken and vegetables? And what is more convenient than a pressure cooker? (OK, I know a microwave is, but I’m talking about cooking, not science experiments.)

So, a beginning, and a delicious one at that. Thank you, Oma.


Serve with a rich, simple chicken and mushroom soup, perhaps enriched with a dollop of sour cream

5 cups buckwheat flour
6 cups water
Teaspoon salt
2 cups neutral oil

Heat oil to just under a simmer.

Bring water and salt to a boil. Pour the flour into the water at once. Stir it quickly with a fork, careful to break up any large lumps that form.

As soon as the water is absorbed, add the heated oil and stir. Cover and let sit over very low heat for ten minutes.

Before serving you can fry the sterz in a dry pan to get it a little crispy. It is not necessary.

To serve: Ladle soup in bowls and serve. Put a bowl of sterz in front of each guest. To eat: Take a little sterz on your spoon and dip it in the soup.

Traditionally, pork skin cracklings (Grammeln in Austria) are placed on top of the sterz. In my wife’s family, they serve small bowls of cooked potatoes and scarlet runner beans instead.

1 Comment so far

  1. elle (unregistered) on February 1st, 2007 @ 8:22 am

    You didn’t tell your readers how the first attempt at making Sterz came out! I’m sure it was delicious because your wife appears to be a fantastic cook!

    Yes one “convenience” item I saw here are little bunches with everything you need to make a stock (a couple of carrots, a few celery stalks, an onion and a sprig of parsley)all tied in a very pretty boquet with twine.

    My mother-in-law keeps wanting to get me a pressure cooker, but to tell you the truth, I’m a little afraid of it – they must be making a come-back, like crockpots in the US, or maybe they never went out of style.

    My hubby, instead, is afraid of microwave ovens – he’s an electrical engineer, tho so maybe there’s some merit there. I remember for the last five years everyone who came to my home in the U.S. would look around and say, “You don’t have a Microwave oven?!?!?” how can you LIVE? I admit it was difficult at first (I particularly missed the defrost button) but I’ve managed to make do. I even have a more patient child because he didn’t gethis bottles zapped!

    Thanks for enlightening your readers in New Mexico and sharing the story with us!

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