Choucroute garnie, the classic Alsatian dish of simmered sauerkraut topped with smoked meats and sausages, is not the sort of thing I want to eat every week, or maybe even every month. Though its name features the fermented vegetable base (choucroute is French for sauerkraut), it's a rich and meat-heavy meal, delectable when properly prepared with best ingredients, and ideal on a cold winter's evening, preferably after a few hours on the ski trails, or working in the woodlot. We make it with great anticipation, and relish every tangy, porky bite, maybe two to three times each winter. We make a big pot, even just for the two of us--the leftovers are even better than the first round.
Another thing I love about choucroute is that it's an ideal dish to simmer atop a woodstove. The gentle, even heat slowly renders the sauerkraut savory and tender, with still a bit of bite, and perfectly infuses the cabbage with the flavors of the meats that "garnish" it. There's some time involved in the prep, but once it's all assembled and bubbling quietly away, it's ready when you are.
If you've thought ahead to ferment your own 'kraut, choucroute garnie is a suitable reward for your forethought. You rinse the 'kraut in several changes of water to take away some of the sourness and salt, then you squeeze out as much water as you can so the cabbage is fairly dry. In a big heavy pot you've got some chopped leek, onion, and carrot sweating down in excellent bacon fat (best) or duck fat (just as good) or oil (acceptable). To this you add the squeezed-out 'kraut, then some dry white wine and chicken stock--perhaps a cup of each. I toss in a bay leaf, a couple of whole cloves, three or four crushed juniper berries, a few sprigs of thyme, a few grinds of coarse pepper. Nestle a small piece of excellent bacon in the middle of it, and let it cook, covered, for a good hour. That's the basis, and can be prepared days ahead.
|Rillons marinating prior to cooking.|
Then on choucroute night, I begin by browning my meats. I had a couple of chunks of our home-smoked bacon, of course, and another homemade meat item, rillons. Rillons are succulent cubes of pork belly that have been cooked a long while in pork fat and duck fat, wine and herbs, very much in the manner of rillettes, except that for rillons the belly cubes are browned first, and left whole at the end, rather than shredded as for rillettes. Both rillons and rillettes are particularly associated with the cochonailles of the Loire valley around the towns of Tours, Amboise, Saumur. Cochonailles means things made from pig; I'll have more to say about this in an upcoming post.
|The golden porky loveliness of finished rillons .|
The sausage components were purchased--really nice smoked sausage from Pastures A Plenty via Seward co-op ; and kalberwurst from Louie's Finer Meats of Cumberland, Wisconsin, an institution in west central Badgerland.
After browning the meats I cleaned up the pan a bit--I like my choucroute to stay nice and light in color, and if there's too much brown stuff in the bottom of the pot it turns dark; tasty but aesthetically unappealing, to me. So the pre-simmered 'kraut goes back in the pan, perhaps with another slosh of wine, or just a bit of water to keep it moist. Then the meats are tucked in, and it cooks at a very gentle simmer for at least a half hour, or until you're ready to eat. Oh, cook some potatoes ahead, and add them to warm in the last twenty minutes or so.
Crusty bread, a glass of riesling or pinot blanc. There it is, my beautiful choucroute:
Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw
Re technical issues: When I went into Blogger yesterday to write this post, I found I was unable to type in the main text box. The little twirly daisy symbol, that doohickey that tells you the computer is "thinking", just kept going round and round, never stopped. I could type in the title box, the labels, see a preview--everything but actually type my post. Next day, today, same deal. Fortunately I have a computer genius in the house, and Mary resolved, or circumvented, the problem by installing Google Chrome as my browser. Now all is well, for the time being. Hopefully this will be helpful information if anyone else in blog world encounters this same problem.