15 March 2009

Choucroute garnie — 1

In 1979-80, I worked in Metz, in northeastern France. It was there that I came to appreciate a good choucroute garnie. Sauerkraut cooked in wine and served with smoked meats and boiled new potatoes is the special dish of the Lorraine and Alsace regions of France. It's regional like ratatouille and bouillabaisse in Provence or cassoulet and foie gras in the French Southwest.

There are restaurants — tavernes, they are called — all around France where choucroute garnie is the main dish prepared and served. The closest ones to Saint-Aignan are one in Blois, 25 miles north, and several in Tours, 40 miles west.

It's not that the people around Saint-Aignan don't eat sauerkraut — they do. In wintertime, raw or cooked sauerkraut is on sale in all the charcuterie shops and at the open air markets. A couple of times a year, the supermarkets run weekly specials on fresh or cooked sauerkraut and all the meats traditionally served with it. Around here, the best source for sauerkraut, in my opinion, is Intermarché over in Noyers.

Sauerkraut cooked in Touraine Sauvignon white wine
with onions, carrots, and aromatics

I like to buy raw sauerkraut — choucroute crue — because I prefer to cook it myself. I like to know exactly what flavoring ingredients go into it. But a lot of people buy their sauerkraut pre-cooked — choucroute cuite. Sometimes it is labeled as having been cooked in Riesling wine. That's one of the main white varietals of the Alsace vineyards. And sometimes you can find it cooked in Champagne, another speciality of the northeastern part of France. The pre-cooked version just needs reheating and it's ready to serve.

Intermarché recently had raw sauerkraut on special at 0.55€ a kilo. That would come to about 35¢ U.S. a pound. Walt went and bought five pounds of it while I was on my trip to the U.S. and put it in the freezer. Over the past couple of days I have been shopping for the meats, smoked and otherwise, that we'll eat with it. We both love it.

Yesterday I cooked the sauerkraut itself in a big pot on top of the stove. The first thing you have to do with raw sauerkraut is to rinse it well in three changes of cold water. That's to de-salt it — sauerkraut is made by cutting raw cabbage into fine strips and salting it down in layers in a barrel or vat. It macerates in the salt for several weeks, if not months. As a result, you need to remove the excess salt before you cook it.

The second step is to blanch the choucroute in boiling water for five minutes. Then you take it out of the water, let it cool, and "comb" it with a fork "the way you would comb a person's hair to untangle it," according to the recipe I follow (in Monique Maine's Cuisine pour Toute l'Année).

For this recipe, I used a kilo of choucroute. That's 2¼ lbs.

While the blanched sauerkraut is cooling, peel and chop up a couple of carrots and a couple of onions. Put some duck or goose fat or lard (or vegetable oil if that's what you have) in the bottom of a big pot. Put in the onions and let them sizzle for a minute, and then put in half the sauerkraut. On top of that layer, scatter in the chopped carrot, three bay leaves, about a dozen black peppercorns, six allspice berries (or a clove or two stuck in a whole raw onion), and about 10 juniper berries. Add a little more fat or oil, and then put the rest of the sauerkraut on top.

An optional ingredient is about half a pound, or a little less, of smoked pork lardons. Those are little chunks of slab bacon. You could also use diced ham, or you can just leave out the meat at this point, especially if you are going to serve the sauerkraut with smoked pork and sausages.

The second stage of cooking includes meats.
More about that tomorrow...

You don't need to add salt at this point in the cooking, because the choucroute might still be sufficiently salty. But what you do need to do is pour in about a bottle, or at least two cups, of dry, fruity white wine. I use our local Sauvignon Blanc. Add a little water if you think it needs it. Then cover the pot and let it simmer for two hours, until the carrots are cooked. Add water if you think it's drying out.

The Larousse Gastronomique food encyclopedia says that sauerkraut is a healthy food and is very easy to digest. If you get indigestion from eating it, that is almost certainly because you ate too much of the meat served with the choucroute.

Here's a link to part 2 of this topic about making choucroute garnie.


  1. one of our favorites too since alot of german background! remember a great platter while in the Alsace many yrs ago. The restuarant cat oversaw the dinner! That and cassoulet at the top of our lists for comfort food from our Dordogne trips the last 2 years - came home with a can of confit to do here someday!

    how about a nice Gewurtz to go along with it???

  2. Perfect comfort food! Ken, thank you for the link to "le Midi libre".

  3. Hello Nadège, yesterday we watched Death Becomes Her (La Mort vous va si bien), with Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, on TV. Was that your name we saw in the credits for makeup?

    Dale, we usually stick with our local wines. There are good Vouvrays (sweet, less sweet, and dry) as well as Valençay and Touraine whites that fill the bill just fine. The choucroute turned out to be an excellent lunch.

  4. Yes it was my name on the credits. I loved working on that movie and I couldn't put the script down but they cut so much out of it (cutting scenes and even characters) it didn't turn out as well as it should have. I am right now working on "Dancing with the stars" and doing pick-up shot on "Avatar" the next Jim Cameron movie (they are hoping it will be the highest grossing movie ever. We have been working on it for 2 years and still not finished). Now you understand why, because of "Hollywood", I enjoy so much reading my french blogs that bring me down to Earth.

  5. That is one of our favorite meals. I add a chopped apple to the sauerkraut and always serve with potato pancakes. Yum.

  6. Do you guys make your own sauerkraut? Harriett grew dozens of cabbages so she would have one to enter in the fair. We had to use up the rest of them so we made our own kraut. It's much easier than I thought...just some salt, cabbage, and time.

    We have to buy it prepackaged and it tends to be very harsh. The homemade version is much nicer. Though perhaps you get it fresh because of all the markets.

  7. Hi Tom, no, we haven't made our own sauerkraut because it is so widely available here and not expensive.

    Like you, I always found the packaged (even in jars) sauerkraut in the U.S. to have a harsh taste. That's probably because it is sold as a garnish for hot dogs and sandwiches and the strong taste is desirable.

    Here it is mild and almost sweet, and is eaten as a main course (or at least main vegetable). I'm sure what you and H. made was really good. They say the fermentation process produces a strong smell though.

  8. We ferment it in a plastic container on the counter and there's no smell unless you get really close (almost put your nose in it).

  9. Tom, wonder if you can make sauerkraut using collard greens. That's what I grow instead of cabbage. Maybe an experiment is coming up.


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