Light Fall vegetable soup
Choucroute Garni Alsacienne
Mustards & horseradish
Caramelized pears in cream
THIS MEAL revolves around my own version of a choucroute garni AlT sacienne, which will convert even the most dedicated sauerkraut hater. The one I live with finds the smell (stink, he rudely says), texture (soggy) and color (amber) of all commercial sauerkrauts utterly repulsive. But this choucroute, with its lovely variety of smoked meats and boiled potatoes, he says, is different. It is -- primarily because the sauerkraut is freshly made at home by an astonishingly simple, fast process. The result is fragrant, slightly crunchy, a fresh white and yellow color, the basis of a dish that embodies the best of home cooking.
The first course is a light soup of pure'ed fall vegetables that include mushrooms, which means the soup is unavoidably dull brown in color, a price that is not too high for the flavor. Especially since a dollop of whipped cream miraculously cheers up the brown soup. Dessert is a simple and delicious dish of caramelized pears in cream, with enough flavor to follow the choucroute but light enough not to be overwhelming after such a substantial meal.
The soup couldn't be easier to make. It is just a matter of chopping vegetables in a processor, softening them in butter, cooking them in broth and pure'eing them in a processor, blender or food mill. It is then thinned with milk so that it has lightness along with body. The soup can comfortably be made a day or two in advance.
I found three stores in the area that stock fresh sauerkraut, although I do not know how long it has been fermented. Wagshal's charges $1.30 a pound, Zeltner's (the new delicatessen near Chevy Chase Circle) charges $1.90 a pound, and Terlitzky's in Alexandria charges 89 cents a pound. The five pounds of wonderful, fresh sauerkraut that I made involved about a dollar's worth of cabbage, a few ounces of coarse salt, a little preplanning and less than half an hour of preparation. Five pounds of wilted cabbage will fill a wide-mouthed two-liter preserving jar almost to the top but still leave enough room for the plastic bag of water. This keeps the air out without making the seal so airtight that it could explode, which a clamped lid might do. The washed, squeezed sauerkraut will hold without fermenting for a few days if refrigerated.
My choucroute recipe has the elements of the traditional but is fresher, more delicate and less pungent, although these are relative terms for a dish that is, as wine makers say, assertive. I use chicken fat because of the flavor it gives the dish and also because I have it available, rendered in a jar in the refrigerator, at all times. Alsatians use goose fat or fresh lard (commercial lard is not good for this). I use chicken broth rather than bouillon along with the white wine because to me the color and flavor are cleaner. I also use minced onion instead of whole onion, and I cook the choucroute for less than half the time an Alsation would. I also use a greater variety of meats and sausages, whose different flavors live together amicably.
I find nice pink smoked pork chops at the supermarket. The packages are invariably turned upside down since light seems to make the pink turn an unpleasant gray. Polish kielbasa, smoked and plain bratwurst and weisswurst can be found at any number of good delicatessen counters. The smoked bratwurst I bought at the Watergate Three Chefs deli was outstanding. The German frankfurters at Sutton Place Gourmet are the best I have eaten for a long while. Juniper berries are essential. They can be found among the spices in some supermarkets, at local co-ops and in specialty food stores.
The order of battle for the choucroute is uncomplicated. It is less a matter of time and more one of paying attention to when meats are added or browned and when potatoes are put to the boil and when frankfurters are put in to cook. There is no real preparation. About an hour and three-quarters before it is to be served, the sauerkraut is washed and squeezed dry (about five minutes for this). The spice bag is prepared while the liquids are heating up. The potatoes are peeled and held in cold water when the casserole goes into the oven. And that's it.
The choucroute, which is a glory to behold when it is arranged on a large platter, should be accompanied by a variety of mustards and horseradish. I drain bottled horseradish of some of its liquid before I put it into a little bowl. This must be covered tightly with plastic wrap until just before serving, since air dissipates the strength of horseradish very quickly. Beer or white wine, preferably an Alsatian or German, are very good with choucroute.
You want a very hot oven for the pears -- so the minute the choucroute is removed, the heat should be turned up to 500 degrees. I used half Bosc and half Bartlett pears in an experiment, with one kind quartered and the other halved to distinguish between the two. The Boscs won because the flesh was less grainy and the flavor more intense. If you buy pears three days before you cook them and keep them in plastic bags, they should be firm-ripe, or just right for cooking.
The time-consuming part of the dessert can be prepared in advance. The pears can be peeled, cored (good cookware stores sell a useful tool to do this neatly) and quartered, dipped in lemon juice and arranged in the baking dish. Covered with plastic wrap, it can sit for a few hours. The sugar doesn't go on until the last minute, to prevent it from drawing too much juice from the pears.
LIGHT FALL VEGETABLE SOUP (8 servings) 2 small onions, peeled 2 medium carrots, peeled and ends trimmed 2 medium zucchini, soaked to remove grit, washed and ends trimmed 4 large mushrooms, cleaned and bottoms of stems trimmed 2 large stalks celery, washed and leaves removed 2 medium potatoes, peeled 3 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces 8 cups chicken broth 1 1/2 to 2 cups milk Salt and pepper, to taste 1/2 cup heavy cream, whipped Cut the vegetables, except the green beans, into chunks, then chop coarsely; the steel blade of a food processor will do this nicely. Heat the butter in a saucepan, add the vegetables and cook over low heat for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables have softened but are not brown. Add the green beans and the chicken broth and simmer 1/2 hour, or until vegetables are thoroughly cooked. Pure'e the soup in a food processor, a blender or a food mill and return to the pot. Add 1 1/2 cups milk, or more if needed, to thin the soup. Taste for salt and pepper and reheat before serving.
To serve, ladle soup into bowls and top with a dollop of whipped cream.
FRESH CHOUCROUTE GARNI (8 servings) 5 pounds fresh sauerkraut (see recipe) 1/4 cup chicken fat, goose fat or fresh lard 1 cup (about 2 medium-large) minced onions 1 1/2 cups dry white wine 1 1/2 cups chicken broth plus another 1/2 cup if needed 1 heaping teaspoon juniper berries 1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns, lightly crushed 2 large bay leaves 2 whole cloves 3 large cloves of garlic, smashed with the back of a knife and peeled 3/4 pound thick-sliced bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces, blanched for 10 minutes in boiling water, refreshed under cold water and patted dry 3 smoked pork chops, rind trimmed, washed and patted dry 12 small (2-inch) red potatoes, peeled 1 pound Polish kielbasa 8 German frankfurters 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 2 smoked bratwurst 2 unsmoked bratwurst 2 weisswurst
Turn the sauerkraut into a colander and wash it thoroughly with cold water. Squeeze out the water by handfuls and set the sauerkraut aside.
Melt the fat or lard in a large, heavy casserole (at least 6 quarts) and cook the onions until soft but not brown, for about 10 minutes. Add the sauerkraut, the wine and the chicken stock and bring to the simmer. Tie the spices in a piece of cheesecloth and bury the bag in the sauerkraut. Add the bacon and distribute it through the sauerkraut. Then bury the pork chops in it. Put the casserole into a 350-degree oven for 1 hour.
Ten minutes before the hour is up, place the potatoes in a pot of salted cold water and put on a medium-high flame. When the water boils (in about 15 minutes), reduce flame and cook for 20 minutes. Test for doneness, using a long, thin knife rather than a fork. The potatoes are done when the knife meets no resistance. Do not overcook them.
After the hour is up, remove the casserole from the oven and bury the Polish kielbasa (unsliced) in the sauerkraut. If all the liquid has been absorbed (it shouldn't be), add another 1/2 cup chicken broth. Return the casserole to the oven for another 25 minutes.
Put a large pot of water on to boil for the frankfurters.
Heat the oil in a large frying pan and brown the two kinds of bratwurst and the weisswurst, cooking these over a low flame for about 20 minutes.
Ten minutes before the choucroute is cooked, put the frankfurters in to boil.
Remove the casserole from the oven and place the pork chops and the kielbasa on a cutting board. Slice these so that you have 8 pieces of each meat. Discard the bones. Then cut each of the bratwursts and the weisswurst into 4 pieces, to make 8 pieces of each meat. Leave the frankfurters whole. Drain the potatoes.
Remove the sauerkraut with a slotted spoon and arrange it on a large platter, making a bed of it. Reserve some of the liquid to pour over leftovers, should there be any. Drain of any excess liquid. Then place the cut meats and the potatoes around the sauerkraut. Place the frankfurters on top. Serve with various mustards (Dijon, moutarde de meaux, German) and drained bottled horseradish.
FRESH SAUERKRAUT (8 servings) 5 1/4 pounds (approximately) cabbage
7 tablespoons coarse (kosher) salt 2-liter (approximately 10-cup) wide-necked preserving jar
Remove the outer leaves and any blemishes from the cabbage. Quarter and core it and shred it with the thin slicing blade of a food processor. Divide the cabbage between two large bowls and add half the salt to each bowl. With your hands, mix the salt thoroughly into the cabbage and set aside for 25 minutes. At this point the cabbage will be wilted and it will have released some liquid.
Spoon the cabbage into the jar and pack it down tightly. You can use a wooden spoon; I use the back of my hand, which is possible with a wide-mouthed jar. Pour the juices remaining in the bowls over the cabbage. The jar will be quite full.
Place a clean plastic food bag on the cabbage and make sure the bag covers its entire surface. Take it a bit over the outside edges. Place a second bag inside the first bag and pour 2 or 3 cups of water into it. Secure this bag with a tie. Work the bag with water around the surface so that it covers all the cabbage. Then secure the outside bag with another tie. The bag will come over the top of the jar. Arrange it so that it flops evenly over the top. Then set the jar on a low, flat soup plate or bowl to catch any liquid that seeps out. Set the jar on a kitchen counter for 6 days, when the sauerkraut will be ready for use. If you like a stronger sauerkraut, let it ferment longer. The room temperature should not exceed 72 degrees during the fermentation period.
CARAMELIZED PEARS IN CREAM (8 servings) 8 firm Bosc pears Juice of 1 lemon 1/2 cup sugar 4 tablespoons butter, cut into small bits 1 cup heavy cream
Peel, quarter and core the pears. Dip each piece in the lemon juice and arrange in a shallow baking pan suitable as a serving dish. (I use a 15-inch-long gratin dish.) The pears should fit in a tight single layer. They can be prepared in advance up to this point, covered with plastic wrap and set aside.
Just before the pears go into the oven (about 20 minutes before they are to be served), sprinkle the sugar over them and dot them with the butter. Bake for 15 minutes in a 500-degree oven. Then put them about 2 inches under a broiler flame for 3 or 4 minutes. Watch the pears carefully at this point to see that they don't burn. When the juices are caramelized, add the cream and spoon the juices plus the cream over the pears. Serve four quarters to each person.