When winter comes and threatens to dump inches upon inches accumulating into feet and feet of snow upon the ground with no chance of a rising temperature to melt it away my thoughts turn to comfort food. To me comfort food generally involves something that cooks slow in a Dutch oven. Have I told you how much I adore my Le Creuset Dutch oven? Any excuse to lift it out of the cupboard and arm curl it once or twice for a good bicep workout is a good one. Since husband was away I knew I could make a few dishes that he normally wouldn't wish to eat. I woke in the morning and perused my new Les Halles cookbook and ran into one of my winter favourites. Choucroute. I took James Beard off the shelf and looked at his suggestions, then Lutece, Julia and Larousse all had varying opinions on how to cook the sauerkraut and also on the garnie.
Julia recommended only 1 cup of wine or 3/4 cup of Vermouth and these were both optional. She also used sauteed carrots in rendered bacon fat. Her garnie was a pork chop browned in a pan along with either Italian or Polish Sausages.
In the now out of Print 'Larousse Treasury of Country Cooking' he favoured goose fat for sauteing and adding sliced apples, wine, beef stock and Kirsch to the sauerkraut. His garnie had smoked pork loin chops and frankfurters.
Andre Soltner of Lutece started by making his own sauerkraut and letting it marinate for 3 weeks. I was a bit more pressed for time. His garnie includes pig's knuckles, bratwurst, blood sausage, frankfurters
James Beard recommended one way in his 1959 book 'the James Beard cookbook' and a different way in 1965 in his 'James Beard's Menus for Entertaining'. He started out with the everything in one pot method cooking the sauerkraut first with salt pork ,pig's knuckles and pork loin with wine for 4 hours and then adding garlic sausage for another 15 and then finally the knockwurst for a further 15. Later he decides that this method provided a choucroute that was
'...quite fatty with a flavour redolent of the various cuts of pork'.
He switched to just the bacon
and wine with the choucroute and then he suggested for garnie you
Bake an 8 - 10 pound ham according to your favourite method. Roast a loin of pork well, basting it with apple juice..., Poach 2 or 3 Polish, Italian or French sausages in red wine and chopped onion..., poach 12 to 18 Knockwurst in water and broth and of course boiled potato. This was of course a Choucroute Garnie for a party of 10.
Then I pulled out my Christmas gift from husband, Mr. Bourdain's new Les Halles cookbook.
I knew I was in love when his paragraph began with the following..
"Oh steaming heap of pork! Thy glistening hues of white and gray and pink!"
He goes on to say,
"This is one dish by the way, for which readers from the Midwest and Pennsylvania might actually have an advantage over their brethren on the coasts, suppliers of German specialty items being, one would hope, closer at hand. You ain't likely to get a smoked pork loin from anybody but a German."
And a little light went
off in my head. We have Karl's Sausage kitchen right here in Boston,
well Saugus, but we needn't split hairs. I packed up the car with the
ipod and hit the turnpike. In 15 minutes I was pulling up outside of
Karl's on Route 1. I walked in the door to face a case full of all
manor of sausages and smoked meats all hand made. The ladies behind
the counter speaking to each other quietly, IN GERMAN, and the cash
register was an old beautiful chrome number with the numbers that
whirled around like an old slot machine. It made a satisfying click,
click click, CHING, click click CHING each time the ladies rang up a
I cased the joint first. I found the sauerkraut in the corner at the end of the case. None of this tinny kraut in a can. No siree. They had glass jars shaped like barrels and prepared sauerkraut already cooked with the wine, one even was cooked with champagne and pureed figs (I bought one of those to try later) and vacuum packed bags of prepared sauerkraut as well. Since I was going to season it myself I picked up the glass barrel as it was just cabbage and vinegar. I looked at all the items on the surrounding shelves. Bottles of fruit essence like loganberry and elderberry. Huge jars of sour cherries for pies. Boxes of spaetzle. Chocolates filled with marzipan. The wafers filled with vanilla and caramel and strawberry filling coated in chocolate. Mustard's sweet and hot, crunchy and smooth, in plain glass jars and blue and white decorated crocks. It was a lederhosen lovers dream.
I scoped out the meat case and looked up at the lady watching me. I told her I was making a choucroute and she nodded sagely and smiled. I asked for some smoked pork. She took out a half a loin that was smoked to a gorgeous deep caramel brown colour with the center of the tenderloin bright pink in contrast. She said they cut it between the ribs, how much would I like? I ordered two ribs, one for now and one to put in the deep freeze in the garage. "Two Bratwurst please." "No bourdin blanc?", "No but these are veal and pork." "Yes two please." "4 of your andouille please" Those went straight into deep freeze. "One smoked sausage please." "Oh, and one blood sausage". I put my sauerkraut, a jar of whole grain mustard, a box of spaetzle for later and a bar of Carstens Lubecker marzipan on the counter. She rang my purchase up on that lovely old register and I headed on my way. I went back to vinodivino for two more bottles of that lovely South Australian Riesling and I headed home.
I can only give you the technique that I used to prepare my choucroute and garnie, I hope that you will see from the differing opinions I mentioned above that how you do this is really basically up to you.
Additional items you will want are a few potatoes to peel and boil, juniper berries, a bay leaf, some coriander or caraway seeds, an onion, salted pork belly, or salt pork, or even if it is all you can find, bacon. You will also need a fat of some kind to saute things in. I happened to have duck fat rendered from a confit or two, but I would say if you didn't have goose or duck fat, render some fat from the salt pork or the pork belly first.
Start with rinsing your sauerkraut in a colander in water and then
letting it drain. Squeeze it a bit to get out the excess water and
then pull it apart, sort of fluffing it a bit.
Finely chop an onion. Crush a clove of garlic (or two or three if your like me). In your dutch oven medium heat, melt some duck fat, add the onion and just cook it until it is translucent, not brown. Then add the sauerkraut, 10 juniper berries, garlic, 1 bottle of that Riesling, the bay leaf and either the coriander or caraway seeds. (If you are the fussy sort, you could wrap all of the spices in a cheesecloth bundle to remove when everything is cooked) Add a few twists of fresh pepper. Add the pork belly (or salt pork or bacon), and the smoked pork loin and cover the pot and let it simmer for about an hour and a half.
In the meantime, peel and boil your potatoes. Fill a pot of water and bring it to a simmer, add your sausages and just simmer them gently until they are heated through.
When you are ready put a big pile of the choucroute in the center of a plate and lay on the pork loin chop, the sausages, put the potatoes on the sides. Serve a small dish of the mustard on the side and drink that other bottle of Riesling.
So good for the cold winter soul.