column By: Culinary Creations from Gordon Hamersley | September, 20
We booked at Brasserie Lipp, which is a bit like eating at a living museum, but they serve good choucroute and that was the point. Lipp exudes Belle Époque elegance with beautifully painted walls and ceilings and more glass and mirrors everywhere.
The place was jammed. We were shown to our table, and we settled down near a tiny French woman sitting alone. She had just ordered choucroute garni and was sipping a tall beer. We did the same.
Choucroute garni has its roots in Alsace along the German border. Choucroute is simply French for sauerkraut and the garni part of the recipe refers to what is served with it. Normally, all manner of pork is what’s called for. It’s a filling dish served on a huge platter for a large table of friends. The kraut is often flavored with juniper, caraway and herbs and cooked in Riesling wine.
The woman’s dinner arrived a few minutes before ours, and I looked over to see what we were in for. Her dish was huge! Two different types of sausage, a fresh hock, a thick hunk of streaky, smoked bacon along with carrots and two huge, yellowy potatoes, which were peeled and sprinkled with chopped parsley. Mustard and pickles were served on the side.
I smiled and thought to myself, “No way in hell she finishes all that!”
Ten minutes later ours arrived, and I looked over again as she mopped up the last bits of Riesling-spiked juices from her plate. She smoked a cigarette, drank an espresso and left.
Wow! I love the French!
Making sauerkraut at home isn’t rocket science, but it is a science, and as with any fermenting process, there are some rules. But really there’s not much to it.
Cut the cabbage as thinly as possible with a knife or use a French mandoline. Salt it well and then macerate it with your fingers, releasing the moisture in the cabbage that mixes with the salt. Left on the kitchen counter, covered with cheesecloth for a few weeks, it will become nice, crunchy kraut.
You will likely see a white scum rise to the surface as the lactic acid fermentation process takes place. This can be disconcerting but persevere. At the end of about 20 days, the kraut will be ready. Skim off the less desirable bit on top and dig in. Kept tightly covered in the refrigerator, sauerkraut will keep for months. (For a recipe that is easy to follow and works well, search for “How to Make Snappy Sauerkraut at Home” at food52.com.)
Of course, I wanted to add a game bird or two for my version, and for guidance I checked the Derrydale Game Cookbook (Derrydale Press 1937). It is my “go-to” cookbook for old-time game recipes, and every hunter should have a copy. There were a few references for sauerkraut and game birds.
The basics for choucroute garni are straightforward. Brown and then braise sausages, bacon and pork hock along with potatoes and carrots in Riesling and game bird stock until close to heated through and cooked. Add the birds at the appropriate time so that they are cooked as the pork finishes.
What birds to use is up to you. In my restaurant kitchen that January 1990, I used pheasant breast and a whole quail, but what you have on hand is what is right. Then add the sauerkraut, which has been rinsed in cold water, some juniper berries, caraway seeds, thyme and bay leaf. Cover the pot and place it in a 325-degree oven until everything is heated through (20 minutes or so).
Traditionally, the sauerkraut is piled in the middle of a serving platter, and the meats are arranged around it including the carrots and potatoes. Spoon some of the cooking juice over and around everything. Have different types of mustards and cornichons (tiny French pickles) on the side and either iced cold beer or dry French Riesling to drink.
This past spring as the coronavirus raged through Europe and the United States, I was emailing with my good friend Benoit Renaud who was at his place in Normandy having escaped early from Paris. Choucroute garni, one of his favorite dishes, came up.
He wrote that reopening (restaurants in Paris after the lockdown) “allows us to go out again. As we were craving choucroute a few options came to mind: Should we book a table at Bofinger or Brasserie Lazare? Then the idea of entering these places wearing a mask seemed awkward, not so cool. So we went another route and not the worst one: I jumped on my scooter and headed to Maison Pou known to offer the best choucroute in town prepared to go.”
Renaud bought “the whole shebang, sausages and pork ribs along with their famous cabbage, of course, nice and light, so very tasty. Truly, waiting for the steamed potatoes to be ready as the choucroute was being reheated in a casserole was . . . torture!
I won’t linger on the pleasure of eating choucroute again, with the strong Dijon mustard, a fresh baguette which Vanessa went to buy while I was on my way and cold Pelforth beer . . .
I know why we were craving for it, even if the warm spring was not really the ideal season for it. Great Stuff!”
Winter is really the time for it, so whether you choose to make your own kraut or buy it in the store, when you make choucroute garni, try adding pheasant or grouse, perhaps a sharptail or quail, to the mix.
It will be sauerkraut as you’ve never experienced it before.