Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Sauerkraut Chronicles

When I left my mother's ... uh ... clutches (say something nice ...) um, sphere of influence at the tender age of 18, I already had some pretty good cooking chops. I could single-handedly orchestrate an entire Thanksgiving dinner without using any recipes. I could make spaghetti sauce and home made pasta. I could make salad dressing and jelly and cookies.

But some things were ... confusing.

The first time I cooked corn on the cob, I had no idea how long it should cook. Ten minutes? An hour? There it was, bobbing in the water, and I had no idea how long it should take.

And then there was sauerkraut.

My mother made sauerkraut all the time. And when I say "made," I mean she bought a big jar of kraut and later it appeared on the dinner table. I had no idea what transpired in between the purchase of the product and the fork-into-mouth experience.

Which is odd, because we - mom, dad, and I - lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. Three people, one bedroom. Yeah, that was fun. I still have creases in my spine from sleeping on the couch for too many years.

But anyway, when I was home, I was never too far from the kitchen. I learned to make mom's spaghetti sauce just from being there. But corn? Nope. Sauerkraut? Nope.

The first time I attempted to make sauerkraut, I opened the can and heated up the contents. I mean, that's what happened with pretty much every canned product that made its way through mom's kitchen. Open the canned corn, heat, and serve.

So I heated the sauerkraut straight from the can and ... oh, my. That's not what mom served.

I could have called her and asked for her recipe, but at that point our war relationship was at the point where I probably wouldn't have trusted her instructions, if she didn't feign forgetfulness. Those were the days when she'd tell me she forgot how she made something, even if she made it for dinner the night before.

So, I had to experiment. And I tried to remember what she did. I knew what the sauerkraut looked like. It was more of a brownish color rather than the stark white that came from a can. And I knew what it tasted like. I just had to recreate it.

I think I've nailed her results, but I can't guarantee this is how she got there. But that's okay, too.

Instead of hiding my recipe in the dark corners of my cobwebby mind and pretending that I've forgotten the details, I'm publishing it. Online. Where anyone can see it. Gee, that's weird, huh?

It takes a little taste-testing to make this recipe. You get to decide how salty, sweet, or tart you like your kraut. And, to be honest, I like it different ways for different uses. And, the sauerkraut you start with makes a difference. Different brands taste different.

I started with a home-fermented kraut - yes, I started with cabbage and fermented my own, then canned it - but it's perfectly fine to start with a jarred or canned version. For most uses, I prefer sauerkraut without caraway seeds, but that's a personal choice. Buy it with caraway, if you like, or add it to the finished kraut.

The sauerkraut I made is fairly mild, just a little tart, but also with some sweetness. You can eat this as a side dish - it's great next to a pork chop or some smoked Polish sausage. It's probably a little too mild for use as a topping on a sausage sandwich, though - you want something with a little more kick for that.

I know that sometimes mom's kraut included meat. Sometimes bacon or fatty bits trimmed from a pork roast or whatever piggy-fatty leftovers she might have had lying around. But more often than not, there was no meat. I think she might have used Crisco once in a while, since that was always around. I opted for butter.

If you're opposed to butter, you're avoiding dairy, you want to make this a vegan dish, or you just think butter is weird in this recipe, you can use a neutral vegetable oil or even a mild-flavored olive oil instead.

Or bacon fat, if you happen to have that on hand. You can also add chopped-up bits of bacon or pork to the kraut, but I was never fond of that texture in sauerkraut. To me, it's a vegetable dish, and I'm perfectly fine leaving it that way.

This made just about one quart of sauerkraut, which seems impossible since you're starting with a quart of jarred sauerkraut and then adding a whole head of cabbage. But that jarred kraut is swimming in a lot of liquid, and the fresh cabbage that's added cooks down a lot. By the time I was done, this fit into a quart container, snugly packed.

Sauerkraut, Reconstructed

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 small head cabbage, shredded/chopped to the same size as the sauerkraut
1 medium onion, quartered and sliced to match the sauerkraut shreds
1 quart (or close enough) sauerkraut, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons finely chopped dried mushrooms*
Salt, as needed
Sugar, as needed (I think mom used brown sugar)
Cider vinegar, as needed
Lots of fresh ground black pepper

Melt the butter in a large skillet or heavy bottomed pan on medium heat. Add the cabbage and onion and cook, stirring often, until the vegetables wilt a bit. Add the sauerkraut and mushrooms and continue cooking, stirring as needed.

First, the color will change so the cabbage and kraut will be indistinguishable from each other. Then, after a while, the vegetables will begin to turn a little brown. This is what you're looking for. Not browned bit - so you need to keep watching and stirring. This takes quite a bit of time, but I think the results are worth it.

As you're cooking, the water will disappear from the pan. That's good, too. You don't want kraut swimming in water. But if it gets too dry and you start getting some crisping/browning action, you can add a bit more water. You're looking for moist, but not swimming in water.

As the color begins to change to a tan color, it's time to taste. Add salt, if needed. It seems crazy since sauerkraut is pretty salty, but draining and rinsing removes a lot of that salt, and there's also a whole head of cabbage in there, as well.

Add a bit of sugar. A teaspoon if you're timid, or a tablespoon if you know you'd like it a little more sweet. I think my mom used brown sugar, but I used a cane sugar that I use for pretty much everything. I put in about tablespoon. The sugar also helps the vegetables brown a little more, so it speeds up the cooking a bit.

Last, decide how tart you want this kraut to be. The kraut you started with was probably fairly tart, but since there's all that extra cabbage, it probably has mellowed quite a bit. And remember, this is supposed to be a version of sauerkraut, not a fried cabbage. Add as much vinegar as you like. You could also add a smidge of balsamic vinegar as well, to get the more rounded tones. But cider vinegar alone is just fine, too.

Keep cooking a little longer, until the sauerkraut is sort of a tan color - not as dark as a cardboard box. Maybe more like a paper bag brown. Not white or green, though. Give it one last taste and adjust the sugar/salt/tart to your liking.

And there you go. Mom's kraut, re-engineered from vague memories and remembered flavors.

*For the mushrooms, you can use what you like; I use a product that I buy from a local mushroom farm. Shitake might not be the best choice - if I don't have the local stuff, I use wild dry mushrooms I buy from an ethnic market, but try to choose something that's a European type of mushroom.

You can chop or grind the mushrooms while they're dry, or you can rehydrate them and then chop them into tiny bits (which you might want to do if you know they're sandy, dirty, or gritty). Or you can use fresh mushrooms, but you'll need more to get the same flavor. I'd estimate about 1/4 pound, chopped fine and added at the beginning of the cooking.