I have to admit that even I find my enthusiasm for salted, fermented cabbage a little curious. I guess that five-plus years of intense bread explorations have only increased my fascination with the transformation that fermenting works on humble ingredients to make them delicious and distinctive. Flour and water into marvelous bread and grapes into wine are a little more dramatic than cabbage into...salty, smelly, tangy cabbage; nevertheless, it is a transformation, and one that opens all sorts of culinary opportunities.
Without sauerkraut, which the French call choucroute, we wouldn't have that wonderful, emblematic Alsatian dish, choucroute garnie, braised sauerkraut with smoked meats and sausages (you can do a fish or a game rendition, as well; we have done both). And you wouldn't have the simple, savory, satisfying Choucroute Bread Pudding that I wrote about last spring/late winter. There you'll also find the recipe for Sauerkraut Made in Jars. (After it was shredded and salted, that cabbage in the first photo--over three pounds--very nearly fit into the quart jar. The recipe says five pounds of cabbage makes two quarts, so that's pretty accurate.)
The combination of 'kraut and smoked meats in choucroute garnie is fitting and well as delicious, I think. Smoking and fermenting are both age-old methods for preserving food; turning the resulting products from a mere means of survival into a gastronomic tour de force is, of course, quintessentially French. The current interest in these atavistic methods is part of the reaction against processed food, fast food, faux foods; it's part of the renewed appreciation for local, seasonal eating, and a recognition that great food doesn't have to be fancy, expensive, imported. Some will say that la nouvelle cuisine is dead, but what was at the heart of that movement is what's behind the local and seasonal credo; it's only the overly fussy, effete wing of nouvelle cuisine that went out of fashion (which is not to say that it's extinct, by far).
There are lots of variations on standard sauerkraut, though I mainly make the unadorned version. Some people add herbs or spices to the fermenting cabbage; I figure I'll add extra flavors when I come to cooking with it. But this time, just for fun, I made one jar that combined the cabbage with a few beets and carrots, julienned on the Benriner . And in another jar I combined cabbage and apples, just because, with this sort of orchard we've come to own, we now have a wicked lot of apples.... I'll let you know how that turns out. You can ferment lots of different vegetables this way. Following the guidance of Sandor Katz in Wild Fermentation I made fermented beets and turnips last fall. The beets were great, the turnips, not so much.
The 'kraut in jars recipe comes from The Country Gourmet , a book well-worth owning if you come across it. I see you can get a copy for a penny, plus shipping at Amazon. That's, um, just pretty amazing.
I set those jars to fermenting on Monday. Today's Wednesday, and when I checked on them today, I could hear them fizzing away, especially the one with the beets. Within a week or so they should be nice and sour. We'll revisit this tangy topic, with recipes, in a few weeks' time
Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw