Choucroute is only good after it has been reheated seven times – an old Alsatian saying
Every family has their own sacred Christmas traditions they look forward to and cherish every year. As children of immigrants, we celebrated in the French style with Christmas Eve being the big social event while Christmas Day was reserved for intimate family. Growing up it was always the same ritual, my sister and I would go to sleep early on Christmas Eve so Santa could come and deliver presents. I remember many a Christmas trying so hard to stay awake and catch Santa, only to be awaken much later by the ringing sound of a sleigh bell and my father shaking me telling me that Santa had just left. After midnight mass we would return home and have a huge feast called Réveillon that was always shared with a large group of friends. My sister Anne and I would open our presents as the party began and be ushered to sleep just before the dancing started. On Christmas Day, my mother always served a traditional choucroute garni from her ancestors in Alsace.
Part of my mother’s family originated in the North of France, in Alsace, where old Christmas traditions run strong. She would tell me of her youth watching her grandmother harvest cabbages and then shred and ferment them with salt, juniper and bay leaves in large wooden barrels. Her grandfather slaughtered the pigs and preserved them for the winter in the guise of hams, bacon and sausages. The culmination of all these gastronomic efforts was the Christmas choucroute, or French sauerkraut.
Decades later, when I was growing up in Chicago we continued to follow the old traditions. Only we bought our kraut and sausages from Sigmund at Chicago’s famous Paulina Meat Market. Since 1946, Sigmund prepared sausages and sauerkraut in the same time honored ways as old Europe and served a large population of Chicago’s German and Eastern Europeans. Even now when I visit Paulina Market I am taken back to Europe by the meaty smells of his shop.
Choucroute is a two day process with the first devoted to slow cooking shredded onions, apples, sauerkraut and smoked pork belly in riesling. The second day the choucroute takes shape and sausages and smoked pork loin are added for the final braising. Great winter dishes need time to slowly develop their complex flavors and cook. There are no magical short cuts designed to better fit your schedule so take the time and enjoy the ensuing aromas that will fill your home with happiness and Christmas spirit.
- day one: preparing the sauerkraut
- 1/4 cup duck, goose or pork fat
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and shredded
- 2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
- 1 gallon sauerkraut
- 20 juniper berries, smashed with the flat side of a heavy knife
- 2 large bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds
- 2 cups Riesling or Gewurztraminer
- 1 pound smoked pork belly (slab bacon) cut into 8 pieces
- 2 ham hocks
- day two: finishing the choucroute
- 2 pounds Polish kielbasa
- 8 skinless hot dogs
- 5 Weisswurst
- 8 slices smoked pork loin
- 2 pounds small yukon gold potatoes, about 20, peeled
- 4 ounces butter
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- Assorted mustards, for serving
- Melt the fat of your choice in a large, heavy gauged pan.
- Add the onion, apple and garlic and saute till translucent, about five minutes.
- Add the drained sauerkraut, juniper and bay leaf.
- Season with ground black pepper and caraway seeds.
- Add wine, smoked pork belly and ham hocks at cook covered at 300 degrees for three, four or five hours. Longer and slower is the course. The important part is that the choucroute does not dry out. The pork belly will pretty much melt into the dish. The fat from the belly and the acidity of the kraut will form a sort of emulsion that will add complexity to your palate.
- Reheat choucroute very slowly in your oven. I do it at 300 degree covered for one hour.
- minutes before you are ready to eat bury the sausages and smoked pork loin into the choucroute and continue cooking till warm. If you cook too long the sausages will explode and look unsightly.
- In the meantime, boil your peeled potatoes till soft.
- Toss in butter and chopped parsley.
- Arrange choucroute on a large serving platter with all the sausages and meats festively arranged.
- Put the potatoes on the top and serve with an assortment of mustards.