It was all wrong, but it turned out so right.
Choucroute garnie is one of the big dishes in Alsace, France which sits, in the geographic and culinary sense, on the border with Germany. Choucroute is a heaping dish of sauerkraut with every imaginable cut of pork. There are variations of the dish with different types of meat (more on this in a bit) but the main one is exceptionally…porky. Make no mistake, no matter what they say, this is a sharing platter. And even if you share you still won’t finish it.
We wanted to go to Alsace and the Black Forest in the winter and so had researched the food of this region. By the time we got to Strasbourg in May, my need to try this dish was nothing short of intense. I even considered fermenting my own cabbage to make it at home (this could still happen). So even though by the time I made it to Alsace – to Strasbourg it was June, there was no way I could leave without trying it.
This was a mistake. This is most decidedly a winter dish. For eating on a very empty stomach. After miles and miles of cross-country skiing. The timing was is wrong.
Still, rearing to go, I went to Maison des Tanneurs, thought by many to be the best place for this choucroute in Strasbourg. I arrived on time with some excitement and some trepidation. I decided to go the full way and order an aperitif, then an appetiser (local escargot) then on to the Riesling to balance any fat in the dish.
The waiter seemed hesitant to accept this order and I realised that I had gone too far. So, losing my nerve, I backed up and settled on a choucroute and Riesling. I settled in and enjoyed the cool breeze from the balcony I was on. Then the damn thing came.
The sauerkraut was piled on the plate first – half of a full serving dish which must have amounted to about a pound of the stuff. Next came one of three sausages, what looked like a pork knee, and a good sized piece of what they call lard here. To this was added some boiled potatoes which I guess was designed to serve as filler.
Whereas before I was feeling a bit cool, now I started to sweat from the sheer volume of pork before me. Though I don’t generally seek out dainty portions, by the time my plate was loaded up, I gave up all hope of even getting through half of it
The thing is, despite the looks, it was really delicious. The cuts of pork ran the range from smooth sausages to spicy meatballs to rich lard and peppery kielbasa. Each bite was crowned with the choucroute or sauerkraut itself. This isn’t your packaged sauerkraut with its heavily salted finish that hides the particular flavour of the fermented cabbage. Instead it was mildly flavoured and lighty crunchy. The sauerkraut is cooked in duck fat, juniper bay leaf and sometimes cloves. It remains refreshing enough to balance the richness of the pork.
Obviously after this feast, dessert wasn’t possible and I settled for a dessert wine instead.
This is nothing pretty and not for the faint hearted but it is something I’ll come back to this winter. I’ll be looking forward to it. I’ll be out in an alpine forest with the snow thick on the ground, exhausted but exhilarated. There will be silence except for the whispering of my skis along the snow. And as my legs burn and my hunger rises, I’ll start thinking about food. My mind will leave the forest and wander ahead to a warm fire and the meal ahead. I’ll start dreaming and this is the dish I’ll be dreaming of.
But the fact that it is summer is no reason to turn away from choucroute. In fact, the same restaurant where I had the pork feast above also had a promising choucroute of guinea fowl on the menu. And the day before (yes, when I explore a dish, I explore it) I had a fish choucroute on the terrace at Au Dauphin.
And that's when I hatched a plan to take choucroute to the next level.
Several places in Strasbourg, now serve the fish choucroute. The fish has the same variation as the pork except for, well, it is all fish. The fish in choucroute ranges from fried cod with a crispy skin to smoked salmon. Fish choucroute is topped with beurre blanc, a silky butter sauce, made with Riesling and topped with herbs.
We took this idea a bit further by adding a good selection of the fish and seafood we found in the market that morning. It all goes here.
Makes 4 servings
16 baby potatoes, skinned
For the choucroute
2 tbsp. duck fat or butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 large bay leaf
1/2 tsp. juniper berries
1 1/2 pounds sauerkraut
For the beurre blanc
2 tbsp. white wine
2 tbsp. vinegar
1 small shallot, minced
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup butter, cold cut into small peices
½ cup medium dry white such as reisling
For the fish
The type of fish you use is totally up to you.
Here are some options:
2 white fish fillets (for example, hake, tilapia, cod)
2 smoked fish fillets
2 salmon or trout fillets
8 tiger prawns
You can also use cold smoked salmon or trout.
Boil the potatoes: Boil the potatoes in salted water until cooked. Keep warm.
Cook the fish: Whether you cook the fish before or after the choucroute will depend on the typeof fish and method that you're using. With shellfish, we steam it with a bit of wine before making the other parts of this dish then add the cooking juices to the sauerkraut. With salmon or trout fillets, keep them skin on and fry skin on until the skin is crispy. The shrimp and langoustines can be boiled simply and left ready for dipping in the beurre blanc later. With the smoked fish, we like to simmer in milk with garlic and thyme to soften the flavour.
Make the choucroute: Rinse the sauerkraut thoroughly to remove any vinegar. Melt the butter or duck fat, add the onion and cook until softened, but not browned. Add the garlic, juniper berries and bay leaves and heat through. Add the sauerkraut and one cup of riesling. If you have any of the juices left over from steaming the shellfish, you can add this too. Cover with a lid and simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring from time to time. Keep warm
Make the butter sauce: Combine the white wine, vinegar, half the cream and shallot in a saucepan. Reduce until the mixture thickens a bit. Turn the heat to low and whisk in the cold butter one or two pieces at a time. Once all the butter has been added, remove the sauce from the heat and add the remaining cream. Keep the sauce warm but never let it boil.
Plate up: On a large serving platter, place a mound of the sauerkraut in the middle. Add the potatoes around it. Place the fish and seafood around this. Pour the beurre blanc over. Sprinkle with chopped chives. Eat immediately.