Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A la Recherche du Pain Perdu

I got into the local food world through the little home-based bakery that my wife Mary and I run, Real Bread, but so far I haven't said much about bread in these...pages, can we say? The recipe you'll find below, Choucroute Bread Pudding (or Sauerkraut Stuffing, by a humbler name) combines the products of several of my favorite culinary activities: baking, smoking, and fermenting. (Choucroute is the French word for sauerkraut; choucroute garnie is the famous Alsatian dish of braised 'kraut and smoked and cured pork products.)

It's a way of using up what around here we refer to as "dead bread," the heels that were never claimed, the uneaten slices of baguette that dry up on the dinner table overnight, that sort of thing. Specifically, pain perdu, which is French for "lost bread," is what we call French toast. I'm taking the term here in a more general sense (and because I couldn't resist the Proustian allusion; now that I've actually mentioned Proust, is it still an allusion?). Anyway: This savory treatment is another way of effecting a very positive reversal of fortune for crusts that have fallen on hard times.

Although the bread in this dish is "dead," it still has to be good. Just as lousy bread makes a lousy sandwich, mediocre croutons make a soggy, forgettable stuffing. This dish is best when made with a variety of breads. Use some rye, if possible, or other whole grain bread. When you can combine--as I did for this dish most recently--pain de campagne, Danish rye, currant-stout bread, chestnut bread, baguette, Swedish rye, and brioche, the result is excellent, if I do say so myself. Mary agreed. I love this dish, and Mary is even more enthusiastic about it than I am.

Giving credit where credit is due, I've channeled this recipe through two very fine local chefs, Isaac Becker of the 112 Eatery in downtown Minneapolis, and Mike Phillips of The Craftsman restaurant in south Minneapolis. When the 112 Eatery opened a couple of years ago, there was a choucroute bread pudding on the menu, and I recall seeing it described as a "signature dish" in at least one review. For a signature dish, it didn't stick around very long. It was great, but it hasn't been on the menu for a long while now.

Then this past December a version of it resurfaced, having gone south to Lake Street and found suitable wintering grounds nestled up against an amazing double-cut Fisher Farm pork chop and flanked by addictively delicious espresso baked beans on Mike Phillips' comforting cold-weather menu at The Craftsman.

I'm calling this a pudding, though it contains no eggs and no milk or cream. It highlights the flavor and texture of the bread, particularly the savory, toothsome crusts. The tartness of the 'kraut contrasts to those flavors, and lightens what could be a heavy dish. Though it's similar to a classic Thanksgiving dressing, it's more assertive than most side dishes. In fact, I think that if you propped a poached egg or two on top of a serving and piled a bit of salad on the side, it could easily become a main course.

I've even included suggestions for making it a vegetarian dish, because, while my previous post might seem to belie it, I know and like many vegetarians, and I respect everyone's dietary choices. I just don't see how you can get the full joy out of life without bacon, is all....

You'll need to amass a certain amount of bread for this dish. It should be pretty dang dry, and once it is dry, it will keep indefinitely. The perfect environment for drying out bread, as many of you know, is a Minnesota home in winter! That super-dry heated air sucks the moisture out of everything. So if you find that part of a loaf went neglected a couple of days too long, cube it up before it's petrified (even if it's petrified, you can still salvage it with a good strong knife and your bold, but cautious, resolve), leave it out for another day or two, then put it in a plastic bag. In these dry, cool winter conditions there's little chance of it molding. But to be safe you might want to put the croutons in the freezer if you don't plan to use them pretty quickly; in summer the freezer is an excellent way to prevent spoilage.

Of course you can also dry your croutons in a low oven before using or storing them.

We are terrible about eating leftovers. Since we generally have a fair amount of bread around, I have to confess that I've thrown out more stale bread than I care to admit. A further confession: I am not a big fan of sweet bread puddings. But since discovering this savory way of reviving lost bread, we hoard every crust jealously and plan meals around it.

Homemade sauerkraut is almost a different entity altogether from the store-bought stuff, but if you don't have homemade use the 'kraut that comes in plastic bags rather than the canned kind. If you have a deli with a northern or eastern European slant, see what they might have. Here in the Twin Cities I would try Kramarczuk's in northeast Minneapolis, or Kiev Foods in the Sibley Plaza shopping center on West 7th in Saint Paul.
For future reference, there are instructions for making your own 'kraut in quart jars below. It's ridiculously easy. And it's fermented!

Two more brief asides: If you're serving this alongside a fowl that came with giblets, chop them up--gizzard, heart, and liver, all--and sauté them in the bacon fat along with the vegetables till they're nicely browned.

Aside #2, The Vegetarian Option: Leave out the bacon. Duh. Use vegetable stock instead of chicken. Sauté about four ounces of mushrooms, any kind you like, until they are nicely browned and concentrated in flavor. This sort of replaces the bacon. Sort of. Dried mushrooms--shitake, porcini, chanterelles, would also be really good in this. Adding a few more vegetables would fill this out into a veritable bread-veg casserole. Fresh cabbage, carrots, eggplant, kale, celery root--all would be fine additions. Just be sure everything is precooked and well browned for that deep umami flavor.

Choucroute Bread Pudding (Sauerkraut Stuffing)
Serves four to six

5 cups dry bread cubes (3/4" to 1" croutons), 12 to 14 ounces
2 1/2 ounces home-smoked bacon (or 2 or 3 slices thick bacon), cut into 1/4" by 1/4" by 1/2" lardons

1 medium onion, about 6 ounces, roughly chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tightly packed cup sauerkraut, preferably homemade
1/4 tsp dried thyme
5 or 6 leaves sage, chopped
salt and pepper
1 1/2 to 2 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
1/4 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth (optional for deglazing the skillet)
Butter to grease the baking dish

In a skillet, cook the bacon gently over medium heat until most of the fat is rendered and the bacon is lightly browned. Remove the bacon from the skillet and reserve. Add the onion and celery and cook until the onion is translucent, about five minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes.

Put the bread cubes in a large mixing bowl and add the bacon and vegetables. Deglaze the skillet with the wine or vermouth if you like; reduce the wine a bit, then add to the bread mixture and stir well. Add the thyme and sage, a few grinds of pepper and a good pinch of salt.

Rinse the sauerkraut a couple of times, then squeeze it in your hands to remove some of the liquid. Chop it coarsely and stir it into the bread mixture.

Add 1 1/2 cups chicken stock and mix well. Cover the mixture (I invert a plate over the stuffing) and let sit at least 20 minutes to let the bread absorb the stock. After 20 minutes mix again and check a few cubes of bread by pinching them with your fingers. They should be moistened and somewhat softened. Add more stock if needed.

Liberally butter a six-cup baking dish, gratin, etc. Add the bread mixture. Bake at 375 for 30 to 40 minutes, until the top is nicely browned.

Sauerkraut Made in Jars
Adapted from The Country Gourmet
Makes 2 quarts

5 pounds cabbage
3 1/2 Tablespoons canning or sea salt

Remove outer dirty or damaged leaves from cabbage. Quarter, core, and shred the cabbage. I like a range of thicknesses, which I get naturally by shredding with a knife. You may also use a mandolin or 'kraut cutter.

Place the cabbage in a large bowl and toss with the salt. Let it sit a while to express some juice. Pack solidly into quart jars. Fill to within one inch of the top. If there's not enough liquid to cover the cabbage, add a little cold water. Put the lids and bands on, and tighten the bands not quite as much as you possibly can--tight but not super-tight.

Place the jars on a platter to catch any overflow. Place in a coolish spot, around 60 degrees. The basement is fine. In just a day or two you'll notice bubbling and juice running over the top. If you're tempted to unscrew the lid to see how things are going, be careful! Juice can shoot out like from a shook-up Coke can.

In five to seven days the bubbling will die down and no more liquid will be coming out of the jar. Wash the jars and tighten down the lids. Then you can either refrigerate indefinitely, or process the jars in a water bath for 15 minutes, seal, and store in the pantry. It doesn't matter if the kraut isn't submerged in liquid at this point--it's preserved by the souring of fermentation.

I was a little worried that I wouldn't get around to writing about this dish while our wintry weather was still with us. N
o problem there. Here's what it looks like in Saint Paul today:

That white on the rooftops is not the glare of bright sun. We will certainly see snow into April this year, and I'm reminded of how, when I was a kid, I thought that if the groundhog saw his shadow, promising six more weeks of winter, that was the outcome to be hoped for. As winter drags on, everyone I talk to these days is looking for a little comfort, and this dish provides it. Do a good deed and help some poor lost bread find its way again.

Brett Laidlaw

copyright 2008 Brett Laidlaw


sheryl said...

Thanks for Aside #2.

Brett Laidlaw said...

Hey, Sheryl, get off your high horse and eat some pig fat, would ya?

But seriously--we are almost as enthusiastic about vegetables at our house as we are about bacon. Mary has even been heard proclaiming that roasted kale tastes "like candy"...!

Can't wait to see the garden spring forth and the stalls at the farmers' market bursting with green.


Sylvie said...

Exploring around, I am having great fun reading miscellaneous posts here and there. I started to make choucroute last summer, first using whey a la Sally Fallon, but did not really care about that (although we did like the fermented carrots). ANd then this fall, I did the traditional recipe - in jar. There is no going back! no, sir!

Thanks for the "pudding" idea. My husband has been making bread for a couple of years now (give that we are 25 miles from a place where you can a decent boule or baguette), and left overs as processed in the food processor for gratin toppings (that - as you know - endlessly variable and delicious dish), soupe a l'oignon and cubed in salad. Good to have other ideas.

Thanks again

Trout Caviar said...

Good homemade 'kraut (but "choucroute" sounds so much nicer!) is a lovely thing, isn't it? The whey method seems odd. Why mess with a sure thing, don't know why you'd want to bring dairy in. I just opened a jar of 'kraut over a year old. Absolutely wonderful. I'm going to make a choucroute garnie this weekend. A nice long ski, a savory plate of cabbage and pork, a glass or two of riesling. Can't wait!

Best~ Brett