This really is an interesting moment in American culinary history. You have, on the one hand, an explosion of sushi, Thai restaurants taking over as the neighborhood café, fish tacos in fresh warm torillas with mango salsa as commonplace to our young people as the seasoned ground beef in crunchy Old El Paso shells kind were in my youth*.
And then, there are those of us who rhapsodize over sausage and bacon served atop fermented cabbage. Choucroute garnie, simmered sauerkraut served with pork in its several guises--smoked, cured, as sausage--is one of the best known Alsatian dishes. If the 'kraut is treated well, thoroughly rinsed, squeezed dry, gently simmered with good wine and aromatics, and if the meats are best quality, the potatoes good and sweet, it can be transcendent, humble as its individual parts may be--Franco-Teutonic synergy on a plate.
But if the 'kraut is indifferent, too sour, salty, or mushy, the sausage and bacon dull industrial products, it can be an utter gut-bomb, not to put too fine a point on it. It's all in the preparation, and the ingredients.
So let's aim for the former version, the transcendent one. If you can start with homemade sauerkraut, that's half the battle. If you don't have that, you can still make something wonderful. Some German or eastern-european markets make their own and sell it in bulk. Failing that, you may find good quality "artisan" 'kraut in jars in the refrigerated section of the grocery store (near the fresh pickles); and then, the stuff in plastic bags will do, too, if the rest of your ingredients are top-notch. If all you can find is canned 'kraut, though, I would choose a different dish for dinner tonight.
(And here's a little tip: You can help your 'kraut along by adding some finely shredded fresh cabbage. In fact, this is good even if you start with excellent 'kraut.)
When I say "transcendent" in describing choucroute, I mean transcendent in a hearty but surprisingly light way, a reassuring, comforting, but also intriguing sort of way. The cabbage will keep a mild crunch and sourness, but will be enriched by the wine, stock, and bacon, and made aromatic by spices that might surprise you in so Germanic a dish--juniper, cumin, coriander, clove. All that plays off against the meats, rich, salty, and smoky. It really is a wonderful dish, just the thing to buck up one's spirits in these waning (we hope) days of a very long winter.
Which is not to say I would turn up my nose at a nice plate of sushi....
In Alsace this dish is often served with a veritable mountain of meat atop the cabbage, an absurd sort of lollapalooza sundae of fresh and cured sausages, ham, smoked pork shoulder, bacon fresh and smoked. I used just homemade bacon and sausage in this more manageable version for two. Use whatever top quality pork products you can find. A piece of good bacon for simmering in the choucroute is the one thing I wouldn't omit or substitute.
(A confession: The choucroute pictured in this post is not the most beautiful I have ever made. After I browned the sausages and bacon, I thought it would be a good idea to deglaze the pan with a little water and add that juice to the 'kraut. The result tasted fine, but it turned the cabbage dark brown, when what you want is nice whitish 'kraut. A word to the wise....)
serves two, generously
8 ounces sauerkraut
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 tsp butter
1 tsp oil (grapeseed or canola)
1/3 cup + 1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup water
3 or 4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
4 whole coriander seeds, or a good pinch ground
1/8 tsp whole cumin seeds
2 juniper berries, crushed
1 whole clove
1/4 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
6 to 8 ounces smoked slab bacon
2 to 4 sausages, fresh or smoked, as you prefer (I used fresh in this version)
Rinse the sauerkraut thoroughly in two or three changes of water. Drain well and then squeeze it to remove most of the moisture. Taste the 'kraut. If it still tastes very sour, or too salty to your taste, rinse it again. It should be just a bit sour, and then more of the sourness will dissipate in the cooking.
In a 10-inch skillet with a lid (or similar size saucepan), melt the butter and add the oil. Add the onions and sweat them over medium heat for a few minutes. Add the sauerkraut and the spices, the 1/3 cup wine, stock and water. Nestle the piece of bacon into the center. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a slow simmer, cover, and let cook for about an hour, checking occasionally to make sure there's still a bit of liquid in the pan. Add a bit of water if necessary.
After an hour, remove the bacon and cut in into four thick slices. In a separate pan lightly brown the bacon on both sides, and brown the sausage, too, if you like. Return bacon and sausage to the sauerkraut, along with 1/2 cup of wine. Cover again and simmer another 20 minutes.
Serve with boiled potatoes, crusty sourdough bread, grain mustard, and a glass of cold riesling.
* Actually, that was pretty exotic fare, back in the day, on North Eden Drive in paradisiacal Eden Prairie. Homemade tacos and those Appian Way pizzas in a box were what we had for international flare. I must have been destined for a life full of fermentation--I am transported as I write this, remembering the smell of the pizza yeast reviving, liberated from its tiny foil envelope. Well, Proust had his madeleine, and to each his own!
And as far as the fish tacos go, I'm going to take it up as a challenge to come up with a Trout Caviar/Bide-A-Wee rendition once the trout season opens; all local, no ahi or mangos need apply.
Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw