Caving to Kraut Craving
First you hear the thunder of the engine roaring in the distance as it approaches.
Then silence, except for a few human voices.
“Breek breek breek” as it backs up. “Plop plop plop” as green orbs drop from the truck into their next lives which will be as choucroute, or sauerkraut, the wonderful pickled cabbage beloved to lovers of Alsace, German, Polish and virtually any other Northern European cuisine.
While there are certainly more modern production facilities for it, the artisanal factory visited a number of years ago near Strasbourg, France, was efficient while using centuries old albeit mechanized, practices.
First the farmer’s crop is weighed (and judged for quality), then the outer leaves stripped off before the cabbage heads are washed, shredded, then transferred to giant vats to cure. The owner looked askance at these pesky American tourists until he realized that a) we were fascinated, b) asked good questions and c) genuinely loved his region and its wonderful cuisine, especially the famous “choucroute garni”.
My earliest memory of sauerkraut is that it was vile: sourness in a can, salty and acidic without much else going on. This may be adequate for garnishing a Reuben sandwich with lots of other flavors, but by itself, not appealing unless it’s some kind of comfort food that Oma (your German grandmother) used to make.
Then I discovered “choucroute garni” in Paris and became a convert for life. The kraut trick is that the pickled cabbage needs to be thoroughly rinsed to bring the acidity down, then cooked with other ingredients which, depending on the nationality of the dish you’re making, can include onions, garlic, chicken stock, beer, white wine, smoked pork or bacon, carrots, caraway, juniper berries, duck fat, a wide range of seasonings. And sausages and other goodies can simmer in it, adding additional flavor notes.
On a recent sojourn to Munich and Vienna, every serving of sauerkraut that appeared on my plate was different, some more acidic, some with the taste of browned onions in the background. They were all good, every single one.
A new stateside favorite for me is Polish sauerkraut soup, tasty and complex.
The best way to buy sauerkraut is fresh, from a barrel.
Often the farmers’ market pickle vendor has a stash of irresistible fresh kraut. Unless entertaining a crowd, I’ll cook up a pot then add one or two garnishes per meal, perhaps a piece of kielbasa or other sausage, perhaps a smoked pork chop.
Freezing the leftovers is suboptimal, but considerably more efficient than getting back on the plane to Munich.