By Warren Bobrow, Cocktail Whisperer
Even with a fire in the woodstove, 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 where I grew up. Some of most poignant memories of this time centered on a bowl of soup… It was what I demanded to eat. I didn’t want anything else. We did a lot of traveling. A fine education for a young person to have-made for great memories. My palate was weaned on true “continental” cooking. From Taverna style Moussaka in rural Greece, to REAL Neapolitan Pizza in Naples, to omelets in Mont St. Michel, to vast platters of Choucroute (hearty and filling pork dish) from Alsace. There were times in Europe where all I craved were vast platters of Choucroute. At this time of year, when the sauerkraut is just coming into its own, the sausages-plump from the smokehouse, streaky, (“green” or raw) bacon and dug right out of the field potatoes, pools of duck fat and baby pork ribs… this is the food that my body craves to stay warm.
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 1000 yards being German, this year, and the next 1000 yards are from France and so on. Foods are hearty and filling on a frigid night.
This is farmer’s cooking for a family gathering, not food for a white table cloth restaurant. It is made without pretention. People would sit down to a steamy bowl of Choucroute with beers, wines or gins from the region; usually crisp Pilsners, bottles of dry Riesling or snifters of the aromatic and potent; local gin. These foods surrounding the use of sausages, sauerkraut, bacon and pork ribletts call out for highly acidic wines and spirits to cut the powerful flavors of rendered sausages.
Every time I taste Choucroute, I am comparing it to the times I enjoyed it 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 some excellent local ingredients. Choucroute can be made to suit your tastes, using the raw materials at your disposal.
Nearly all ingredients recommended are produced within 100 miles from my home. I must recommend going to a craft 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 passion by buying from him, instead of going to the supermarket. You should use a mild beef sausage, and also some veal sausages. Pork sausages are ok too, but don’t use spicy sausage, as it will make the entire dish spicy, as this is traditionally not a spicy dish. If you must have spices, pick hot German mustard. Please do not use Chorizo or a hot Italian sausage. The dish will be ruined.
If you know a German butcher, he will have prepared sauerkraut at this time of the year. He uses this sauerkraut in numerous dishes 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 farmer.
1. 1/3-cup kosher salt, plus more for seasoning (you will brine the pork ribs, worry not, it’s easy!)
2. 2 tablespoons brown sugar
3. 3 pounds pork back ribs cut “Chinese-style” across the bone to make ribletts
4. 6 pounds sauerkraut local is far preferable to the bottled stuff…never use that!
5. 1/4-cup duck fat. Try D’Artagnan foods for duck fat on the Internet.
6. 4 large garlic cloves, freshly chopped-you must never use garlic in a bottle. If you have some of these foul ingredients in a bottle, throw them out this very minute.
7. 1 cup of Barr Hill Gin from Caledonia Spirits in Vermont
8. 3 large bay leaves wrap in a cheese-cloth with caraway seeds and peppercorns
9. 1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds wrap in the above cheese-cloth
10. 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
11. 3 cups home-made chicken stock
12. 1 1/2 cups very dry Riesling (Trocken is what the label should read, DO NOT USE A SWEET WINE or the dish will taste like candy!)
13. 2 pounds German-style beef kielbasa, skinned and cut into 2-inch pieces from your German butcher
14. 10 natural casing hot dogs (beef)
15. One 2-pound piece of a “cottage ham” or Boston pork butt, deeply smoked. Call your local German butcher; he’ll explain what it is. (No German butcher? Move!)
16. 2 pounds medium all-purpose boiling potatoes (about 10), peeled
17. German Mustard
In a non-reactive pot cover the ribs with water. Add kosher salt and sugar. Brine overnight in the refrigerator. Next day, remove ribs; discard brine except for ½ cup of liquid. On stovetop 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. Slice potatoes over the top. 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 with a Trocken (bone dry) Riesling or a large glass of the raw honey and grain- distilled, Barr Hill Gin.
Cheers from DrinkUpNY!
Article by Warren Bobrow, a nationally published food and spirits columnist who writes for Williams-Sonoma, Foodista and the Beekman Boys.