It's not often I get to write, "As we drove through the rolling hills from Frankfurt across the German-French border, the towns grew increasingly smaller and older, the buildings more charming and fairy tale-like with stone and moss the predominant textures."
Braising the vegetables.
It was an incredibly long time ago, and our last through the French countryside, a road trip that took us from the Alsace region across to the Loire, then down through the Dordogne with a swing back up to Frankfurt. Our first stop was in an auberge in the tiny town of Riquewihr, one with a traditional Alsatian restaurant on the main floor and rooms for guests on the second floor.
Adding the bacon.
Coming down for dinner that night, we found we'd walked into a special evening featuring that most Alsatian of dishes, choucroute garnie. A long table ran down one side of the room, the length of it piled with the most sweetly fragrant sauerkraut, braised for hours in stock, bay leaves and juniper berries. On top of the sauerkraut were all kinds of sausages from the area, along with slices of smoked ham, whole pork chops and other meats, all of which had been cooked in the braised sauerkraut.
In goes the meat…getting there!
That choucroute (pron. shoo-CROOT) completely changed my attitude toward sauerkraut, which up to that point had always been a tart, vinegary-tasting accompaniment to my grandmother's cabbage rolls, which she called "hoblich" (probably a variation on Ukrainian "holopchi"), or my mother's sauerkraut with hot dogs, her attempt to pay homage to my father's German heritage. In this version, rinsed of most of the salt and sourness, then simmered until meltingly tender, even the most adamant of the sauerkraut averse will rave.
Loosely adapted from Time-Life Foods of World: Provincial France
6 lbs. sauerkraut
1 lb. bacon
4 Tbsp. olive oil
2 med. onions, chopped fine
1 Tbsp. garlic, minced
2 c. carrots, cut in 1/4" rounds
1 tart apple, cored and chopped in 1/2" dice
6 c. chicken stock
2 c. dry white wine
1 Tbsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
8 sprigs parsley
3 bay leaves
17 juniper berries
2 lbs. uncooked sausages, like bratwurst
2 lbs. chicken thighs**
3 smoked pork chops or several slices smoked ham
Yukon gold potatoes
Preheat the oven to 325°.
Rinse the sauerkraut in several changes of water to get rid of excess salt and vinegar. (I've used both house-made sauerkraut from Old Salt and a good commercial brand like Bubbies, containing just cabbage, salt and water.) After rinsing, squeeze it vigorously to get out as much water as possible.
In a heavy 9-qt. casserole or Dutch oven (I used Big Blue), heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic and carrots and sauté for 10 min., stirring often to prevent sticking. Stir in the chopped apple and continue cooking for 2 or 3 min., then stir in the sauerkraut and combine thoroughly. Reduce the heat as low as possible, cover the pot and braise the vegetables for 15 min. Then add the chicken stock, wine, salt, pepper, parsley, bay leaves and juniper berries and stir to combine. Lay the bacon on top of the sauerkraut. Cover tightly, place on middle rack of the oven and braise for 3 hrs.
After the sauerkraut has braised for 3 hrs., prick the sausages 4 or 5 times and add to the casserole with the chicken thighs, burying them in the sauerkraut. Cover, return the pot to the oven and braise for 30 mins. Add the pork chops to the sauerkraut and continue braising for 45 minutes.
Toward the end of the cooking time, heat a large pot of water till boiling, halve the potatoes and cook till tender.
To serve, transfer the sauerkraut to a deep, heated platter or serving dish, removing the bay leaves and as many of the juniper berries as you can. Mound the meat over the top. Serve with potatoes on the side.
* Duck legs or rabbit would also be great in this.