My first memory of Oktoberfest was when I was a kid growing up in Central Wisconsin. We went to visit my cousins in La Crosse in Mid-September.  As folks did in those days, we all piled into the car to go for a ride to look around.  I didn’t get (and still don’t) the fascination with new subdivision or sites for new (really new at the time) strip malls, but driving by the airport or going over the Mississippi on the Cass Street bridge fit my level of excitement, especially the bridge.  You could see through the road-way all the way down to the water below if you were going slow enough.

But nothing could have prepared me for the sight of the Oktoberfest grounds as the city was preparing for the annual event.  There were carnival rides galore being set up.  I had never even seen so many fair rides–even in my dreams.  Of course I begged to be able to stay so that my sister, cousins and I could go on all those wonderful rides, but the answer was No.  The holiday wouldn’t be starting for several more days and as my parents were careful to point out on our ride back home later that day, there was a lot of beer drinking that went on at Oktoberfest.  I was a bit confused why that might be a problem, though, because my parents and most in their social circle regularly enjoyed a malt beverage or two.

I still have never been to Oktoberfest in La Crosse, but I have appreciated the combination of cold beer and good German food at this time of year for many years now.  As much as Wisconsin is known for its beer, cheese curds and brandy consumption, it is also known for its bratwursts.  There are so many wonderful bratwursts produced by a myriad of sausage makers–everything from huge factories to local country butcher shops!  We have really enjoyed trying all sorts of interesting flavors of brats, and after much experimenting, my daughter has declared Louie’s “Minnesota Brats” featuring wild rice, blueberries and mozzarella cheese to be her favorites (though we feel disloyal to the great state of WI saying we like something labeled Minnesotan–but at least they’re made in Wisconsin).

There are even disagreements on the proper way to cook brats.  Some folks like to grill the brats until the sausages are wonderfully browned and smoky, then drown them in beer and onions for as long as it takes to realize that they should really eat something. The opposite method is to boil the brats in the beer and onions first, then grill them so they are hot off the grill.  This method requires knowing when you want to eat and may involve continually having to add charcoal to the grill because you waited too long to start grilling.

Having enjoyed eating brats cooked both ways plenty of times I stay out of the fray by simply grilling them indirectly (not directly over coals) until they are golden and plump with their juices, and putting them into a nice soft bun that is smaller than the brat and garnishing it with everything from ketchup to mustard to curry mayonnaise.  I’ve found that you can just add beer at any point in this process through direct consumption, and the brats turn out great!

But you don’t have to eat brats only as a sausage in a bun.  I remember the first time I saw a brat patty listed on a bar menu.  I was like, “You can do that?!!”  “Well yes, you can,” the bartender replied in a not so subtle “duh” tone.

I have come a long way in my appreciation for Oktoberfest.  The rides still look like fun, but now more to watch my daughter twirling up-side down.  The cold beer however still tastes mighty good.  And I have come up with a quite a few more ways to enjoy the flavor of German bratwursts.  In my “SausageFest” classes this Fall, in honor of Oktoberfest, we have been making killer Bratwurst Croutons that are an amazing accompaniment to my recipe for traditional German Cheese Soup.  I hope you enjoy the following recipes (with a cold beverage, of course).  Prost!

Chef Joel

German Potato and Cheese Soup

2 quarts water
1½ pounds potatoes, peeled and diced
½ pound carrots, peeled and diced
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon white pepper
½ pound broccoli, cut into small pieces
3 cups grated cheddar

Method:  Place the water in a pot.  Add the potatoes and carrots and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a strong simmer and cook until the potatoes are tender.  Take ½ cup of the cooking liquid and mix it with cornstarch.  Add it back to the pot along with the onion powder, salt and white pepper.  Bring to a boil and add the broccoli.  Boil until the broccoli is tender then stir in the cheese.  Serve hot.

Crispy Bratwurst Croutons

½ pound brat meat, crumbled
3 cups Rye bread, cut into ½ inch cubes, and dried
¼ cup olive oil
½ teaspoon pepper
Salt as desired

Method:  Cook the brat meat until browned.  Add the rye bread then drizzle the olive oil over all and season with salt and pepper.  Cook, stirring occasionally until the croutons are browned.