Sauerkraut is one of those dishes that can assume multiple incarnations, some on the light side, and some with enough goose fat to sink the Bismarck. After three solid days of eating rich foods over the course of that American holiday of sublime overindulgence, I’m feeling very much inclined to look to the lighter end of the spectrum and to the west of the Rhine.
For this variation on Alsatian-style sauerkraut, Choucroute à la Gueuze (or just plain sour beer sauerkraut, if you prefer), I use gueuze in place of white wine for a zesty crispness that’ll cut through all that turkey and mashed potatoes. I also bundle up a slightly different spice blend than I do when making my soporific duck fat German-style sauerkraut, spices that come together in a flavourful ensemble with the citric tartness of the gueuze. The amounts are approximate – spice as conservatively or intensely as you like.
Versatility is the hallmark of this dish. You can serve it up with sausages and ham, or you can opt instead for a seafood variation using scallops and halibut. Prepare these simply: salt, pepper, and a quick sauté in a mixture of olive oil and butter before garnishing the platter. You can also add mussels near the end of cooking to echo that other great beer accompaniment, moules-frites. Boiled young potatoes add just enough heft, and sliced, parboiled fennel bulb rounds out the dish.
Vegetarians need not feel left out in the cold either. For depth of flavour, substitute one pound of mushrooms for the bacon and skip the butter if you’re vegan. Crimini mushrooms work well, but chanterelles or oyster mushrooms add a finer touch. Caramelize the mushrooms in a separate skillet, and then combine with the rest of the ingredients when adding the sauerkraut.
The humble cabbage is, of course, the star attraction. You can use canned sauerkraut in an absolute pinch, but a bag or jar of fresh sauerkraut will flatter the dish all the more. Better yet, make your own. All you need is some advanced planning, a little time, and a sharp knife. (Details follow the recipe).
- 3 lbs. fresh sauerkraut, rinsed
- ¼ lb. slab of bacon, diced
- 1 tbsp. butter
- 1 onion, cut in half and sliced thinly
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 green apples (peeled, cored, and diced)
- 1 cup gueuze or lambic (a light-coloured beer like Lindemans Cuvée René works well)
- 1 tbsp. juniper berries
- 2 cloves
- 1 tsp. black peppercorns
- 1 tbsp. coriander seeds
- 1 tsp. fennel seeds
- ½ tsp. cumin seeds
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tbsp. tarragon, chopped (keep a few sprigs aside for garnish)
- sea salt or kosher salt to taste
- cheesecloth and cooking twine
- sausages, meats, seafood, potatoes, and vegetables of your choice
Preheat oven to 325º F. Rinse the sauerkraut and prep the onion and apples. Tie the juniper, cloves, coriander, fennel, cumin, and bay leaves in cheesecloth to make a spice bag.
In the meantime, render the bacon fat in a heavy casserole set over just shy of medium heat. Swirl in the butter, raise heat to medium-high, and sauté the onions until they turn translucent. Add garlic and apple and sauté another minute or two.
Raise heat slightly, deglaze the casserole with the gueuze, and add the sauerkraut and spice bag, letting everything come to a gentle boil. Check salt and add if necessary, then cover the casserole and place it in the oven.
You could easily let this dish cook for up to three hours for a very tender, nearly melting sauerkraut, but since we’re going for a light touch, an hour will yield sauerkraut with some crunch. You could also braise the sauerkraut on the stove top over low heat, but cooking it in the oven frees up the stove top so you can prep the other fine foods that will garnish your dish.
Remove from the oven and stir in the tarragon. Cover and let sit for another minute or two before garnishing the casserole or turning the contents out onto a platter.
Serve with gueuze, lambic, Flanders red ale, or Oud Bruin. White wines like Rieslings or Gewürztraminers are perfect accompaniments as well.
Turning Cabbage into Sauerkraut
Find a dense cabbage (go for purple cabbage if you’d like some added colour), remove the outer leaves, core it, and then slice it thinly. You could use a food processor, but the result comes out like watery coleslaw. For every five pounds of cabbage you’ll need about 3.5 tablespoons of salt (roughly 2-3% of the weight of the cabbage).
If you own a crock, great. If not, this fermenting fabrication works just as well: two food-grade containers of equal size.
Simple, eh? Just fill the bottom container with alternating layers of cabbage and salt, then fill the top one with water to weigh it down. Top it off with a clean pillow case, draw some whiskers on it, and you’ll keep the ambient critters at bay. Store the container in a cool, dry place and wait about three weeks.
© 2013 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.