German/French Country Cooking: Choucroute
January 5, 2011
Even with a fire in the wood stove, I can’t seem to get warm enough. This winter reminds me of the winters on the farm growing up. It always seemed to be colder then. There certainly was more snow than there is now. I may have been smaller in stature, but there was a reason for having snow fencing at the top of the hill on the farm where I grew up.
Some of most poignant memories of this time centered on bowls of soup or a mound of sliced sausages, sauerkraut, smoked pork cooked until melted and served with tiny boiled potatoes. It was what I demanded to eat. I didn’t want anything else other than tortellini in brodo while in Italy and Choucroute while in Alsace.
We did a lot of traveling when I was a boy. It was a fine education, filled with European travel and foods from the specific regions. This made for great memories. Most of these culinary memories fed the well from which I draw my passion for the foods that speak of the place-their unique qualities and their individual flavors.
The wines and beers of these regions were never denied to me. Thus I was able at an early age to develop a refined palate, mostly on trial and error!
My palate was weaned on true “Continental” (read: European) cooking. From Taverna-style Moussaka in Crete, to REAL Neapolitan Pizza in Naples… to towering high, puffed omelets in Mont St. Michel, to vast platters of Choucroute in Alsace. There were times in Europe where all I dreamed of were these steaming platters of Choucroute. At this time of year, the holiday time when the sauerkraut is just coming into its own, the sausages-plump from the smokehouse, streaky bacon-ready to be folded into a stew, right out of the field potatoes, duck fat for warmth and baby pork ribs. This is the food that my body craves.
During the many wars over the ages between Germany and France, the region known as Alsace has worn many hats. Wines are made from similar grape varieties, but taste nothing alike. A Riesling from Alsace may have no resemblance to one grown just 1000 yards away in Germany. The foods they eat, however are amalgamations of the years of this 100 yards being German, this year, and the next 100 yards going to France and so on. Foods are hearty, filling and warming on a cold night.
Alsace is a cold place in the winter and the foods they enjoy make for a fully belly.
This is farmer’s cooking, not food for a fancy white table cloth restaurant. It is without pretension. People would sit down to a steamy bowl of Choucroute with beers and wines from the region; usually crisp Pilsners or bottles of dry, yet full yet acidic Riesling. These foods containing sausages, sauerkraut, bacon and pork ribletts call out for highly acidic wines and beers to cut the powerful flavors of rendered fat.
Every time I taste Choucroute, I am comparing the flavors to the times I enjoyed this dish in France…and it cannot compare. There is something about the raw materials that make this dish nearly impossible to duplicate here in New Jersey. I can, however use pretty good local ingredients. Choucroute can be made to suit your tastes, using the materials at your disposal.
Nearly all ingredients recommended are produced within 100 miles from my home. I must recommend going to a real butcher for your sausages. There aren’t too many of these around any more. It would be nice if you were to find a German butcher. You would honor his heritage and craft by buying from him, instead of going to the supermarket and buying something pre-made. You should use a mild beef sausage, and also some veal sausages. Pork sausage is ok, but don’t use spicy sausage, as it will make the entire dish spicy, and it’s traditionally not a spicy dish. If you must have spices, pick hot German mustard or grainy mustard, but please do not use Chorizo or a Hot Italian sausage.
The dish will be ruined.
If you know a German butcher, he will have sauerkraut at this time of the year. He uses this sauerkraut in numerous preparations during the cold winter months, so you shouldn’t surprise him by asking for it. If don’t have a local butcher, move someplace that does.
Support local farms and buy their products. It’s good for you and good for the local farmer.
1/3-cup kosher salt, plus more for seasoning (you will brine the pork ribs, worry not, it’s easy!)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
3 pounds pork back ribs cut “Chinese-style” across the bone to make ribletts
6 pounds sauerkraut local is far preferable to the bottled stuff…never use that!
1/4-cup duck fat. Try D’Artagnan foods for duck fat on the Internet. http://www.dartagnan.com/
4 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped-you must never use garlic in a bottle. If you have bottled garlic- throw it out this very minute and get to work!
20 juniper berries (essential)
3 large bay leaves wrap in a cheese-cloth with caraway seeds and peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds wrap in the above cheese-cloth
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cups home-made chicken stock
1 1/2 cups dry Riesling (Trocken)
2 pounds assorted German sausages, cut into 2-inch pieces from your local German butcher or search for this on the internet. It’s worth the effort to gather the best ingredients!
10 natural casing hot dogs (beef)
One 2-pound piece of a “cottage ham” or Boston Butt, smoked. Call your German butcher; he’ll explain what it is.
2 pounds small, all-purpose boiling potatoes (about 10), peeled
German Mustard, grainy, smooth and green.
Streaky (read: fatty) bacon. Only a few slices.
In a non-reactive pot cover the ribs with just enough water. Add kosher salt and sugar, stir with a wooden spoon to distribute sugar and salt. Brine overnight in the refrigerator. Next day, remove ribs; discard brine except for ½ cup of liquid. On stove top place a large cast iron Dutch oven. Add duck fat to the pot. Sautee the garlic cloves in duck fat, add pork ribletts, then the sausages, let them brown, add Boston Butt, add German Kielbasa and hot dogs to the pot. Add the wine and deglaze. Add the spice packet, cover with chicken stock and the ½ cup of brine. Top with the Sauerkraut and the streaky bacon. Place potatoes around the liquid and sausages. Cover and simmer over low heat for at least 2 hours, more if you are able to cook in a slow oven for about 3-4 hours on 250.
Serve Choucroute with a Trocken (bone dry) Riesling or a Crisp and refreshing “Beer de Garde” from France.
Warren Bobrow is a mixologist, chef, and writer known as the Cocktail Whisperer. In 2010, Bobrow founded “Wild Table” for Wild River Review and serves as the master mixologist for several brands of liquor, including the Busted Barrel rum produced by New Jersey’s first licensed distillery since Prohibition.
Bobrow has published three books on mixology and written articles for Saveur magazine, Voda magazine, Whole Foods-Dark Rye, Distiller, Beverage Media, DrinkupNY and other periodicals. He writes the “On Whiskey” column for Okra Magazine at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum and has written restaurant reviews for New Jersey Monthly.
His first book Apothecary Cocktails, was published in September 2013; and immediately went into a second printing. In 2014, he published Whiskey Cocktails. He was born and raised in Morristown, NJ, on a Biodynamic farm.
Warren Bobrow in this Edition
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