A real rib sticker
Cabbage is a vegetable I eat just as much in summer as I do in winter. A shredded wombok salad is a staple at home in summer, just as sautéed or steamed and buttered savoy cabbage is in winter.
I like to reconnect with my Irish roots occasionally and make colcannon – basically mashed potatoes laced with shredded cabbage or, sometimes, kale. For a small saucepan of mashed potatoes I would sauté about two cups of shredded savoy cabbage with a handful of diced bacon and a bunch of chopped spring onions. Don’t be ashamed to use excessive amounts of butter for this dish. Just don’t tell anyone exactly how much butter you have added and your friends and family will happily devour it.
Sauerkraut is the result of dry salted and fermented cabbage. Traditionally shredded cabbage is placed in a non-reactive ceramic crock, weighed down to assist in drawing out excess liquid. During the fermentation process the cabbage develops a distinctive sour flavour. Like many fermentation processes, the objective is to preserve the base produce. Along the way many of these processes affect and distort and often improve the flavour and texture.
Another cabbage ferment is the very famous and very now kimchi. The wombok or Chinese cabbage is simply halved and seasoned with salt, ginger, garlic, chilli powder and sometimes fish sauce or dried shrimp. It is then left for at least six weeks to ferment, a process that can be applied to almost any kind of vegetable. Kimchi is eaten as a snack or an accompaniment to most meals in Korea.
But back to sauerkraut. The French have taken this eastern European staple and created a most brilliant dish that rivals the inspired cassoulet or bouillabaisse from Marseille. Choucroute garnie, like most regional dishes with peasant roots, has no fixed or exact recipe. And I am certain that the version I have provided here is subtly different to any cabbage and pork dish you may find in any restaurant or bistro in Europe. Although there are many regional versions, the only real constant ingredients are sauerkraut, juniper berries, bay leaves, potatoes and wine. The question of what protein to add is usually regional and seasonal and up to the individual.
The true home of choucroute garnie is the Alsace region in the east of France. Here it is more commonly eaten in winter and is traditionally served with a bottle of dry riesling. It is a recipe that requires some time and certain planning. The first time I cooked it, I was catering for a large gathering of chefs. We took pains to perfect the recipe and researched many historical and modern interpretations to come to our version. The English food writer Jane Grigson’s important book Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery was most useful, with its version of choucroute and frankfurters.
After a day of tinkering and tweaking in the kitchen, the choucroute was served. The heady fragrance of aromatics, sauerkraut and smoky pork was perfect. All of the elements were so well integrated and harmonious. It was bewildering that such a bizarre concoction of ingredients could come together to build something so unique: a sum of all its parts, with the base foundation of sauerkraut somehow managing to marry the flavours.
A version we have cooked in the restaurant is a simple version of choucroute with a little salt pork rind, finished with a kilo of fresh surf clams. The briny juice of the clams along with the salt pork complements the acidic sauerkraut perfectly. We finish it with the juice of a lemon and serve it with crusty bread in the middle of winter.
I’m the first to admit this recipe is not something that can be thrown together after work. But, when planned in advance, the dish will feed many and is a true celebration of winter. Use any leftovers in a grilled sandwich with mustard and Swiss cheese – a brilliant twist on a reuben sandwich.
– 1 tbsp duck fat or olive oil
– 1 brown onion, finely sliced
– 2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
– 100g kaiserfleisch or pancetta, finely diced
– ½ savoy cabbage, finely sliced
– 600g sauerkraut, rinsed and drained
– 1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and diced
– 1 shot kirsch (optional)
– 1 cup dry riesling
– 10 juniper berries
– 2 bay leaves
– 500ml chicken stock
– 16 small waxy potatoes
– 8 thick slices Lyonnaise sausage
– 8 bratwurst or frankfurter sausage
– 400g smoked pork belly or bacon, cut into 1cm thick slices
Warm the duck fat or olive oil in a large stainless steel saucepan or enamel baking tray. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft and translucent. Add the kaiserfleisch and cook gently for five minutes, without colouring.
Add the fresh cabbage and cook until wilted, followed by the sauerkraut, apple, kirsch and riesling. Continue to cook until the riesling has reduced a little. Now add the juniper berries, bay leaves and chicken stock. Season generously with white pepper.
Transfer to a large baking dish and cover with aluminium foil. Pierce a few holes in the foil to let the steam escape. Bake in an oven at 180ºC for one hour, checking from time to time to ensure the liquid has not completely reduced.
Meanwhile, steam or boil the potatoes until cooked, and slip off their skins while still warm.
In a frying pan, gently cook the sausages for a few minutes to give them some colour.
Take the sausages, pork belly slices and potatoes, bury them in the pan of choucroute and bake for a further 30-40 minutes.
Remove the dish from the oven. Taste the choucroute and add salt if required.
Transfer the choucroute garnie to serving platters and serve with a pot of Dijon mustard and cornichons.
Verget NV Au Fils du Temps marsanne/chardonnay, Provence, France ($18) – Campbell Burton, sommelier, Builders Arms Hotel.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 12, 2014 as "A real rib sticker". Subscribe here.