Right before the weekend, the spirit of Julia Child popped by for a glass of the house red, and suggested "Cassoulet? Boeuf Bourguignon? Coq au vin?"
"Julie, dear," I whispered, "what about a lovely old-fashioned Choucroute Garnie à l'Alsacienne?"
A satisfied smile glimmered in the air and vanished, and I got to work.
You might think this means tying on an apron, preheating the oven, finding the juniper berries... Hah. What the recipes don't tell you about this dish is the secret ingredient. The secret ingredient here, as in all good food, is shopping. It's essential to use fresh raw sauerkraut - this is available in ethnic butchers, specialty food stores sometimes, charcuteries or equivalent, pork stores. I get my supplies from Schaller & Weber, which is about a mile uptown from Flintstone Towers, and is one of the last remaining traces of old Yorkville.
I always love the counterman's expression when I lead off by requesting 12 pounds of sauerkraut. This amount, plus sausages and roast meat, usually feeds 8 or 10, but has fed 12 or 14....
Choucroute Garnie means garnished sauerkraut. You "garnish" it with a couple dozen sausages. I bought 10 Weisswurst (white veal sausage with parsley flecks), 10 raw Bratwurst, 5 Knockwurst. The counterman called a colleague to come and watch. Another traditional ingredient is smoked porkchops. These are expensive - compared to the sausages - and generally get tasted, not consumed, and so over the years when I'm making a vat of sauerkraut for company, I also make a roast loin of pork. So I stopped at the butcher counter and took care of that, too. Fortunately there was an empty cab right outside the store. The countermen and the butcher lined up on the sidewalk and waved goodbye.
Other essentials - potatoes, carrots, onions, cream, butter - had been ordered and were waiting when the sausages, the kraut and I arrived home.
Julia tells you to rinse the brine off the sauerkraut, but it wasn't until I got to watch one of her old television programs that I understood what she really meant. You drain the sauerkraut, run cold water through it in a colander, dump it into a vat of cold water, swish around, and repeat. Once more with feeling, and then, having washed, you wring. Truly - you pick up the kraut by small handfuls and squeeze the water out, and then you re-fluff the little lumps. Not my favorite activity, but necessary. Julia, of course, had unseen helpers doing the squeezing and fluffing for the tv program. Not that I'm complaining.
Once that's done, the fun begins. Sliced onions and carrots are cooked in butter with little bits of pork, when they're soft the kraut is added in and mixed up, and wine and broth are added, to the depth of the kraut.
Spices, including peppercorns, juniper berries, parsley, bay, go in, too, wrapped in a bit of cheesecloth and buried in the kraut - this is important because otherwise you risk someone biting on a peppercorn or whatever. Having one package means you just remove one thing when the kraut's done.
So, bring the whole thing to a simmer on top of the stove, cover the kraut with buttered baking paper, cover the pot, and into the oven for 4 or 5 hours. This is plenty of time to get the roast pork and mashed potatoes ready.
Mashed potatoes are not traditional with this dish, the conservative approach calls for boiled potatoes, but I live with a man who pounces on any excuse, however slight, to get me to make mashed, and company while nice goes home at the end of the evening. You do the math.
Et voilà, the sausages, which get browned and then poached for a few minutes before being added to the kraut.
And, of course, there's plenty of time to set the table, leaving plenty of room for the food.
The "garnished" platters are a warming sight to behold!
I thought we'd have plenty of leftovers and I wouldn't have to cook again till maybe Tuesday. Doesn't look that way. Oh, well. Summing up, there was beer, there was wine, there was dessert, there was coffee, there was congenial company and good talk...
And the next cold snap could be tomorrow... after all, it snowed today.