When my plane took off for Munich I thought I was embarking on a research trip for my second book: Coping Skills OR How I ate my way through Europe and stayed in harmony with my body. My fully charged camera was at the ready and I was armed with notebooks to fill with travel anecdotes of my gastronomic pilgrimage to Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, and France. I know. I have a great job. Naturally, I was deliriously happy.
What I did not expect was the realization that windows of opportunity are transient. Within hours of landing in Germany, Laurie (my perfect travel companion) and I sat at a 16-foot lion-footed antique table surrounded by nine nuns, eating schnitzel and goulash soup. Also served were creamy mashed potatoes so flavorful they elevated this mundane tuber to a sanctified place in my heart. Despite jet lag and the guttural sounds of German spoken all around, this moment scored full points for surrealism. My aunt, a nun, worked for 30 years as the “mother” to 17 disabled children in residence at this remarkable facility, anchored by the idyllic Offenstetten castle. Our visit with her was the first destination on our itinerary. This is not a trumped up castle in name only. It has a moat, drawbridge, and real puddle ducks paddling around its 17th century stone walls. Finished by Napoleon, with parquet-floors and gilded-ceilings, Offenstetten features a 2nd story dining room with fireplaces big enough to walk into without bending down. I imagined whole goats on a spit roasting away; a delicious daydream to be sure. It was in that room I broke bread for two days with my angelic aunt and her sisters.
We stood behind our appointed seats before each meal, while this small chorus of earth angels sang prayers of gratitude before pushing aside their habits to tuck into glorious food. While they chatted amiably and sipped room-temperature amber beer, we had sausage and ripe cheese piled on dark rye bread. It was spread with butter from an enormous 2-pound slab of deep yellow, molded with the impression of wildflowers. Of course the butter was decorated. Alternately, we piled soft poppy-seed rolls with smooth white quark, a sort of yogurt-cheese, topped with red currant jelly. Quark with jam tastes like cheesecake’s quirky great-aunt—the kind that looks a bit different but brings you presents. Soft-boiled eggs standing at attention in whimsical holders and rustic oat muesli with full-fat milk launched our morning. Germanized ravioli in a smooth tomato sauce (similar in texture to tomato soup) was amazingly good for lunch with a pickled cucumber and dill salad. Nothing could have shocked me more than the conspiratorial look on the face of one nun at the conclusion of the meal as she spilled into my arms a pile of chocolate-marshmallow candy bars for dessert. Not one, but a dozen! She giggled at my bewildered expression.
After meals we walked arm-in-arm with my smiling aunt through the ambling paths of the postcard estate. With her swollen foot, she grew achy from walking and pushed her bicycle along as a sort of comical walker. I have loved this aunt all my life and she has doted on me from the time I was a little girl. As we spooned creamy egg-enriched leek and potato soup with spinach into our bowls at the final meal, I knew her time in this place was ending. This castle, her “children,” these nuns, they were all a time-capsule in our complicated world, and I wept as we drove away under the shade of hundred-year old linden trees. I did not know how, but I knew that would be my final visit to the Cabriniheim in Offenstetten, with Sister Ehrenshroud.
Three weeks later, my aunt had a heart attack. She survived and is now convalescing while she awaits re-assignment to a restful convent in Switzerland or Salzburg. Her well-earned retirement has finally come and my window has closed. But before it did I celebrated in that visit what is good and right and beautiful in my life. We must take the opportunities to share sweet moments with loved ones when they come, otherwise a chance to hug and laugh may be gone. Please enjoy this recipe taken directly from that final meal—in commemoration of those generous sisters and the spirit of service taught by their very lives.
Creamy Leek and Potato Soup with Spinach
By Tres Prier Hatch
The enrichment of egg in this soup adds body and color. This is a classic German technique. Make sure to puree well to achieve a smooth texture. Once milk is added be careful not to boil soup.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large leek, split down center and thoroughly rinsed
1 medium carrot, peeled
1 large shallot, peeled
2-3 medium potatoes, peeled
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried parsley
32-ounces (two pounds) chicken stock
1 egg, lightly beaten with a fork
3 cups milk, plus a bit extra for egg mixture
Salt and white pepper
3-ounces fresh baby spinach (two large handfuls), coarsely chopped
Finely dice leek, carrot, shallot, and potatoes. Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Sweat leek, carrot, and shallot in oil until translucent, about ten minutes. Add diced potato and herbs and continue to sauté for another five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add chicken stock and simmer until vegetables are soft. Insert long-necked hand blender into pot and puree until smooth. Alternately, puree in batches in a blender.
Whisk egg in a medium bowl with a few tablespoons milk. Drizzle hot soup with ladle into egg mixture, whisking constantly. Keep whisking more hot soup into egg mixture to bring it up to uniform temperature with soup mixture. Pour hot egg mixture back into soup and whisk well to incorporate. Correct seasoning with salt and white pepper to taste.
Heat milk to scalding in microwave and stir hot milk into soup. Add more milk if mixture is too thick. Turn heat to low and simmer without boiling, stirring frequently. Add fresh chopped spinach and stir just until wilted. Serve hot.
Tres Hatch is the author of: Miracle Pill 10 Truths to Healthy, Thin, & Sexy.