Some of my NJWILDBEAUTY readers know that I lived the seasons round in Provence in 1987/88. Around the time of my Thanksgiving birthday, all the excitement in the rues surrounding the Cannes Marche had to do with the Alsatian specialite, Choucroute Garnie. Signs threaded the byways that circled the market, emblazoned, “LA CHOUCROUTE GARNIE EST ARRIVEE!!!” (Choucroute means sauerkraut, and Garnie means garnished, as with meats.)
In the streets outside the market were imposing metal containers, in which the just-arrived sauerkraut with sausage masterpiece was enthroned and simmering. In my halting French, with my midwestern-teacher’s accent, I managed to have the most interesting proprietor prepare a take-home container. It was done with such pride, such ceremony, you’d have thought he was ladling with sterling onto heirloom china. The proprietor steered me to the best local wine provider, also on that side-rue, so that they could give me the best Riesling to accompany his chef d’oeuvre.
At home, in my tiny, heatless Cannes apartment, I ladled out cabbage and sausages, carried it to the Provencal-quilt-covered table on my minuscule balcony. I went back in for the Riesling and a wineglass. I poured that nectar very slowly, watching it reflect the Mediterranean shimmering below. It was warm on the November balcony. A slight breeze ruffled the wild herbs from the garrigue which somehow thrived in my balcony window-boxes. These wind-visits carried with them the essence of wild thyme and sage and rosemary, mingled with sea air.
I remember being surprised at how light the choucroute was, and that I liked the somewhat sweet wine that is its essential accompaniment.
In October, here, in 2014, I was suddenly overcome by choucroute nostalgia. I called six brave friends, two of whom are our regions Ur-food-critics. I told them, I have to do this. I described the dish, which always loses everything in translation. I said, “I’ve only tasted it once and made it never. Would you come and eat it with me?”
Every single one said an eager yes. One knew immediately, “I’ll bring rye bread.” I’ve not been in Alsace so I’ve never asked why, but rye is the only acceptable bread with choucroute. One agreed, bravely, to make a winemaker’s tart – specialty of the grape harvest in France. It has a sweet crust, a custard filling, and is studded with what should be the ripest grapes of the current year. We’re a little lacking in that particular ingredient. The others volunteered to go to their favorite wine providers here, say “choucroute” and see what happened.
Sunday, December 14, was the day of the great choucroute challenge. I’ve now dubbed my formidable friends, “La Confrerie de la Choucroute.” (Not all my NJWILDBEAUTY adventures are outdoors…) My friends assembled promptly at 2:30, bearing their specialties.
We began with the sprightly German champagne from Trader Joe’s, Schloss Bieber. With it, was served a hearty terrine from Brick Farm Market. It was of pork and lamb — there wouldn’t have been lamb in the Alsatian version. It was rosy and succulent, studded with fresh green pistachios. Another dear friend had given me pickled fiddlehead ferns for my birthday, so we savored those instead of traditional gherkins and tiny pickled onions.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the choucroute simmered merrily.
It’s more of a technique than a recipe. I’ll try to recreate it, because, with the help of the Pennsylvania Dutch Farm Market in Kingston/Kendall Park, this magnificent signature dish which absolutely defines that region can be successfully made in America. And it’s not that hard. Worrying about whether I might ruin it or not was far harder than just making it.
Buy meats at the PADFM — thick slab bacon, a ham hock, and knockwurst from the smoker right inside the front door. Buy the plainest sausages (no apples, no chorizo, nothing trendy) — I bought sage and pork, and what I think they called brackwurst — it wasn’t white like the brafwurst I usually get there. They were rough peasant sausages, and that is what’s called for.
Buy sauerkraut from the pickle-and-olive man — my recipe for eight called for three pounds, but that didn’t look like quite enough, so I did three and a half pounds. I checked with him about rinsing the sauerkraut, which my American recipes required. The French did not seem to get into that, but maybe they think everyone knows. I said, “I don’t want to ruin your wonderful sauerkraut,” as his (probably) grandson, with blonde hair yes in a Dutch boy cut was ladling my order. “No!,” the elder insisted, “Rinse it!”
I actually cooked the choucroute on Friday for three of the six hours it requires. I just wanted part of it behind me.
Rinse cabbage and press to drain.
Saute four large yellow onions in bacon fat – I did this in large flat pan in oven with the slab bacon slices, so they rendered their fat and browned the onions.
Mix onions when golden but not dark, with cabbage.
Put layer of cabbage in bottom of crock pot or heavy casserole.
Put smoked ham hock in middle, and ring with knockwurst. I should have had two of this hefty sausage, and could have used a larger ham hock. But quantities are not the point here — marrying of flavors is all that matters.
Meanwhile, I was browning all the other sausages in bacon fat in a pan in the oven. Then I cut those into chunks, but I had not cut knockwurst or ham hock. I mixed the chunks with the rest of the sauerkraut and put that on top of the first layer and that ham hock and knockwurst.
The bacon slices were beautiful, like antique wood, wide and rich and dark. I ringed the sauerkraut with them.
I couldn’t figure out, from any of the recipes, how the spices were going to infuse everything. So I put them in the Riesling (for cooking I bought Ullrich Langguth Riesling from Trader Joe’s — “made from 100% very mature Riesling grapes — fruity, elegant, refreshing acidity” – says the label), in a saucepan and heated just to the simmer for about five minutes. I poured that concoction immediately over the casserole.
My ingredients come from an array of recipes in French and in English — in effect, juniper berries are the heart of the matter. I’ve just moved to Juniper Court, so this felt most appropriate. Some recipes counted the berries and some measured. You could say 2 tablespoons of juniper berries; 1 tablespoon each of whole black peppercorns and whole cloves or allspice. Some recipes call for both – that might have been a bit much of that taste. I put in 6 garlic cloves, cut very thin. Cumin and coriander are usually part of this, and my new landlord, from India, tells me they help with digestion of meats. For my recipe for 8, two tsps. ground coriander and two tsps. ground cumin were fine, not overpowering. I bought those spices at Brick Farm Market, so they were very fresh. I had inferior bay leaves — nothing equals Williams Sonoma bay leaf wreaths, and I don’t see them this year. So I used six bay leaves.
This with a lid went into the crock pot on high until it boiled, and I don’t know how long that took; then on low until three hours had passed. This went into the refrigerator when cool enough.
On Sunday, I took it out at noon and put it in the oven at 350 until it boiled, then on 225, until we reached the three-hour point.
One friend brought Willm Alsace Riesling Reserve, 2012, which was perfect; another brought Alsace Domaine Bott Freres Riesling 2010, which was also perfect. Some Rieslings are fruitier than others. I am no connoisseur, but they did blend and enhance with perfection that astonishing choucroute. The other bottle of Riesling we did not open — it is Alsace Riesling Hugel. All three wine purveyors were delighted to play the choucroute game.
If you want to read an expert on this, check out that marvelous chronicler, R.W. Apple, on his family’s choucroute traditions. I am no expert. Pardon my inadequacies, as I even attempt to convey the savory, subtle, astonishingly light and digestible, beautifully melded dish that filled our plates.
Filled our plates twice, because everyone went back for seconds. You couldn’t taste those spices individually — alchemy had occurred.
The meats had given over all their succulence to the whole, and yet were tasty and somehow almost airy – when I’d frankly expected heavy. The choucroute gleamed and glistened, fairly leapt off the plate, after all those hours of cooking. I couldn’t believe it.
Americans frequently add tart apples, and that would be good. I didn’t do so because I wanted to be authentic.
French, not only Alsatians, add steamed small potatoes, red bliss i would think, in this country. I didn’t do that because I felt it would be too heavy.
These friends are not trenchermen, but wondrously supportive, even outrageous women, perfectly willing to take this chance together. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen them have seconds, come to think of it.
One of us brought the Alsatian winemaker’s tart, which was rustic and beautiful, and carried the theme through delightfully. However, American grapes can’t hold a candle to French, and don’t let anyone tell you they can.
Faith Bahadurian, who has provided the actual dinner photos, brought sugarplums, which she had made herself! I’ve never had, but only heard of, sugarplums. Tiny, rich, dark, intriguing, even a little dangerous (cognac?), they were the perfect climax. Now we all have ‘visions of sugarplums’.
Now imagine, since in Alsace they would have finished the meal with plumliwasser, kirsch, or eau de vie du poire, my visit to the industrial strength Vingo on Route 27, seeking these forms of finale…To their credit, though they clearly thought I was making this up, they checked their computers. Lo, a young man ultimately arrived bearing a beautiful, jewel-like round and charming bottle: Belle de Brillet — don’t you love it? – and belle she is. Liqueur Originale. Poire Williams au Cognac. It is not firewater-clear, as is kirsch, as is eau de vie du poire. It seems that Brillet has been crafting this elixir since 1850. It is the color of the most luminous honey, only transparent. I have little Swiss liqueur glasses, from my long-ago marriage. They were our centerpiece. And they held the Belle de Brillet, to accompany our winemaker’s tart.
I still cannot get over the changes in the sausages, how they enhanced the cabbage. I have to face it — choucroute is about one of my most cherished concepts — transformation.
And I’m here to tell you that every aspect of this, from light-bulb through phonecalls through research through talking with the sausage lady, the ham hock lady and the sauerkraut man, was a joy. The cooking was so much easier than I thought, and the sharing paradise.
I didn’t take enough pictures as I was serving. My guests did. If they can send them in a form I can save and insert into NJWILDBEAUTY, I’ll do so.
Meanwhile, savor this with us in spirit, and go out and put together your own. All of the chat rooms I read on this subject seem to imply you can’t go wrong.