One morning I bought a nice rack of lamb, but as the day wore on, it became clear that neither Jackie nor I really felt like meat for dinner. So we had cauliflower with pasta instead, which left us with the appetizing prospect of a lamb supper in the future.
When that day arrived, it occurred to me that we also had a container of good sauerkraut in the fridge (not the canned or jarred kind, but the sort you buy out of a barrel at the pickle store) and that it would work very well with lamb. Browned meat simmered for a while in pre-cooked sauerkraut, with flavorings that link the two ingredients, is always delicious. Obvious examples are variations on Alsatian choucroute, containing several fresh and cured meats; one of the most winning ones is kielbasa browned in a pan, then finished in ’kraut.
Lamb is indeed used in sauerkraut dishes wherever there are sheep and preserved cabbage, though this combination has not made its way onto many American menus. I’d certainly never cooked the two together, but I rectified this omission when a friend was coming over for something to eat.
When I saw that we wouldn’t be eating that rack of lamb right away, I removed and chopped up the bones, then browned them with vegetables and made a flavorful stock (40 minutes in the pressure cooker), which I refrigerated until I figured out what it was going to become.
Once I hit on the sauerkraut angle, I used nearly a quart of this stock to make my ’kraut: I sweated a small leek (onion would have been fine), a bit of diced carrot and celery, a wee scrap of garlic and some slivered, lightly smoked ham (Italian speck, my go-to cooking ham), then added a pint of rinsed and squeeze-dried sauerkraut. This I moistened with perhaps a 1/2 cup of white wine, which I reduced by more than half, then with the defatted lamb stock. I finished with salt (yes, rinsed sauerkraut needs salt), lots of pepper, one clove, some thyme leaves and a bay leaf. I simmered it for about an hour, let it cool and put it in the fridge.
This stuff, whether cooked with lamb broth or chicken or vegetable stock, is well worth making and keeping in the house. It even freezes reasonably well, since the cabbage’s crispness isn’t really an issue. Then, you can make dishes like this one at a moment’s notice — or just have the best hot dogs you can imagine.
(The remaining lamb broth, about 1 1/2 cups, I slowly reduced with a spoonful of tomato paste until it had become a rich sauce, which I strained and refrigerated. This is entirely optional: The broth could more profitably be used for a soup.)
In the morning, I took the lamb (which had been kept in a cold refrigerator for a few days, covered with a paper towel — probably a futile nod at dry aging, but it did no harm), seasoned it with salt, pepper and coarsely ground cumin. I then returned the meat to the fridge until 90 minutes before dinner, when I took it out and let it come up to room temperature. I preheated the oven to 375 degrees.
In a shallow braising pan (or deep skillet) over medium-low heat, I browned the fat side of the meat for about 10 minutes (which rendered plenty of fat but barely started to cook the flesh), then turned it over and put the pan into the oven for another 10 minutes or so, which left the meat still underdone.
Now, I poured off much of the fat and added about 2 cups of prepared sauerkraut, which deglazed the pan and created a moist environment for the meat to finish cooking in. Once the ’kraut juices had begun to bubble, I covered the pan and simmered the meat gently until the thickest part had reached 130 degrees on an instant-read probe thermometer: nice and pink, but not flabby. I set the meat on a platter to rest, tasted the sauerkraut for seasoning and boiled some spaetzle for a side dish (steamed potatoes would have been great, too).
I set a first-helping slice of meat on a pile of sauerkraut and spooned on a little of that (optional) reduced lamb sauce. This looked pretty hearty but was surprisingly delicate because of the mild, tender lamb; also, the medium/medium-rare meat meant that this was not a typical choucroute, much less a Central European sauerkraut stew.