Choucroute as a recipe is less important than the people you invite to eat it with. So thank you Linda, Tom, Larry, Valca, Pete and Steve for joining us last night. Since we were all basking in the glow of Tuesday's election results, this also constituted our Kumbaya moment.
Choucroute is a classic Alsatian dish of sauerkraut and pork products but there is no single agreed-upon way to make it. In other words, don't feel you have to make it exactly as written in your picture book of French cookery. My own method starts with home-made sauerkraut, shown in the photo at left beginning with about 10 pounds of shredded cabbage and six tablespoons of pickling salt packed firmly in a heavy plastic bucket so that the brine that leaches from the cabbage rises over the top. Give it a month or more to finish.
I then hop on the subway to Capitol Hill to select my pork products from the local butchers: a smoked hock or shank, bacon ends, smoked chops, fresh pork belly if they have it and Kielbasa sausage and bratwurst. Then I get back on the subway and head downtown to the Cafe Mozart where the deli case holds weisswurst and lots of other goodies. Being made of veal, I'm not sure how traditional weisswurst is in choucroute. But we love it and so do all our guests.
The day before the event, I saute a large onion with some bacon grease at the bottom of our biggest and heaviest cookpot. Cook it until it is soft and lightly caramelized. Then I grate two Granny Smith apples (with skins) directly into the pot before adding about six cups of fresh sauerkraut. I stir in a teaspoon of caraway seeds and about a dozen crushed juniper berries. Then I push my smoked ham hock deep into the middle of the kraut, pour in a half cup of Riesling wine and bring the whole mess to a boil. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting, cover the pot and let it simmer for an hour or more until the kraut is soft, aromatic and unctuous.
But for this particular choucroute, there was something special: sauerruben, or fermented grated turnips, that have been mellowing in our refrigerator for the last year and a half. They have an other-worldly nutty flavor to go with the mild tang of fermentation. I added about two cups of that to my pot as well. The results were beyond anything we've ever experienced from mere sauerkraut.
While the pot is simmering, brown all of your other meats in a heavy skillet with a little cooking oil or bacon grease. These can be wrapped and refrigerated until the following day, when the sausages, the bacon ends, the smoked chops and the pork belly are all packed into the pot to wait until the guests arrive, when we turn the heat up to a gentle simmer and let those kraut and wine juices steam everything for about 45 minutes.
We loaded the finished kraut and meat onto a big platter and served it buffet-style with roasted parsnips and carrots from the garden, mashed potatoes and homemade apple sauce. All of the guests had brought various German wines and the libations did flow. Conversation was lively, interrupted by exclamations over the turnip-infused kraut.
For dessert, we plated a stunning sweet potato pie made by my wife the baker from sweet potatoes grown just outside the kitchen window. More about that anon. I am still recovering.