Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Charcutepalooza Finale: Choucroute Garnie

Choucroute Garnie
Growing up we always had our dinner together at the kitchen table.  We had no dining room so the kitchen table had to accommodate all six of us.  Having three younger brothers and living during a period of traditional gender roles, I often ended up being my mother's helper, whether cleaning the house, folding laundry, or cooking something.  My mother was never big on cooking and we pretty much had the same things for dinner every week.  Variety came from some of the first fast food joints, the local Italian pizzeria, and dinner with friends.  Of course, I wasn't a very big eater so I didn't really care about what was set in front of me.  I liked the ubiquitous spaghetti that was my Italian grandmother's recipe, but aside from that my mom usually made something very New England like pot roast, or very easy like biscuits with chicken gravy (thank you Campbell's Soup).  But there was one dish that my Dad loved, and I learned to love it too, and that was pork chops, potatoes, and sauerkraut oven-braised in a covered casserole dish.  My mom served it with gravy and I hesitate to think of where the gravy came from.

So, when the December Showing Off challenge was announced, my mind enthusiastically wrapped itself around the idea of Choucroute Garnie.  From 1984-1985, I lived in Stuttgart, Germany which is only about seventy miles from Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, the home of Choucroute Garnie. The people of Stuttgart speak Swabian, which, like Alsatian, is one of the Low Alemannic dialects. As in Alsace, the people of Swabia (Stuttgart and the surrounding area), pay much attention to cured meats. Indeed, every town contains a Metzgerei, a butcher's shop where charcuterie is found in abundance.  My husband and I loved the food.  When my parents visited in the summer, my husband and I took them to Strasbourg for some Choucroute Garnie and three of us ordered it.  My mom ordered some chicken dish and I wondered if she hadn't really liked the pork chops and sauerkraut that she made so long ago.  I had made Choucroute Garnie a number of times in my adult years but this was the first time I would be tasting it in some fancy restaurant in Strasbourg. I don't remember the name of the place but it was very close to the cathedral.  It may have been Maison Kammerzell.  The food tasted sublime and exceeded my expectations.  I don't remember all the meats served with it, I only remember devouring most of it.

Having spent this past year diving with great expectation and fun into the Charcutepalooza challenges, I began to do some research on the history of Choucroute Garnie in order to serve an authentic dinner.  I also wanted to regale my guests not just with wonderful food but also with anecdotes about Choucroute Garnie like how the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, when in Paris, ate it every day at the Rotonde in Montparnesse.

I also wanted to explain how this very German style dish came to be found in France. Alsace's location, west of the Rhine River and backed by the Vosges Mountains, made it a strategic place for both countries, as its history reveals. At the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648, Louis XIV annexed the area into France where it remained until the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, when Germany took over Alsace.  After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 gave the territory back to France. With the rise of Nazi power in Germany, Hitler annexed Alsace in 1940, but at the end of World War II, the area was returned to the French government.  Although this history of sovereignty must have been exhausting for the citizens of Alsace, it also seemed to bring out the best of both countries when it came to food.
As for other trivia about Alsace, that famous song "Les Marseillaise," known by many for its timely occurrence in the film Casablanca, was composed in Strasbourg.  A number of famous people have come from Alsace, including such illustrious chefs like André Soltner and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.  Marcel Marceau, the famous French mime came from Alsace as did Marie Tussaud of wax museum fame.  Also, according to the Saveur Cooks Authentic French cookbook, Alsace is known for its many starred Michelin restaurants.  As I remember from my year in Stuttgart, it is an interesting area because several close borders, including not only France and Germany, but also Switzerland and Austria, exchanged sovereignty, visitors, neighbors, friends, and family throughout its history.

I set the date for the Charcutepalooza final meal for the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  With the end of the semester and all its extra work looming in front of me, I wanted to give myself plenty of time!  I invited six, close friends who had been following and reading and hearing about my charcuterie escapades throughout the year.  They also had sampled some of the challenges.

Hors oeuvres
I wasn't quite finished with the final set up when my guests arrived, so my hors d'oeuvres table wasn't ready, but I quickly set out all the hors d'oeuvres, thus beginning an evening of showing off my newly acquired charcuterie abilities.  All the hors d'oeuvres had been made in advance and only needed to be displayed and eaten.  The day before I had done some preliminary preparations like making bread and sauce to serve with all these delectable charcuterie tidbits. In a blatant attempt to bribe the judges, I baked a loaf of Michael Ruhlman's Classic Rye Bread with Caraway Seeds and a boule of Bob del Grosso's Alt-Sourdough Technique bread in which I substituted some of the bread flour with rye flour and added some caraway seeds.  They were both delicious!  I had once been served pork rillettes with a Sauce Gribiche at Santé Restaurant & Charcuterie in Spokane, WA, so decided to do the same at my Charcuterie dinner, using the recipe from The Lutèce Cookbook.  For the charcuterie, I served thinly sliced noix de jambon, pork confit, melon squares wrapped in duck breast prosciutto, Anne Burrell's Bacon Wrapped Dates Stuffed with Manchego but wrapped them with pancetta instead, and a pork paté, as well as some cornichons and olives.  Both the hors d'oeuvres and the entree were served with coarse ground mustard and Dijon mustard.  We had to force ourselves to stop eating all the hors d'oeuvres in order to save room for dinner.

Choucroute Garnie
I compared a number of recipes for Choucroute Garnie in order to figure out some of the correct meats and spices. In the end, after looking at recipes from  Julia Child to Anthony Bourdain to Jeffrey Steingarten to André Soltner, I decided that I would pretty much follow the recipe from Soltner's Lutèce Cookbook.  I deviated slightly depending on what meats I had on hand and what I could make.  After smoking some ham hocks and frankfurters, which turned quite dark and smokey because the Brinkman Smoker doesn't have an interior thermometer, I received an early Christmas present: the Bradley Smoker.  I was able to use the ham hocks after boiling them a bit and changing the water for another simmer.  The frankfurters weren't too bad and had to be used because time was slipping away.  But, using my new Bradley Smoker,  I was able to make a delicious, stuffed sausage, Saucisses Montbéliard (a simple, garlicky sausage often used in Alsace in Choucroute Garnie).  I also made some pancetta, the salt cure, but made it flat so I could cut some large cubes to cook with the choucroute.  I had a small, fresh ham that I ended up brining, after which I cut it into manageable chunks, gave them a quick sear in rendered pork fat, then put it all into the choucroute as well.  I also added the cubed pancetta pieces, pork hocks, Riesling, onions cooked in pork fat, some of own chicken stock, juniper berries, cloves, caraway seeds, and bay leaf, covered the casserole and roasted it as 325F for an hour and a half.  Finally, I added the frankfurters and Saucisses Montbéliard which had been simmered lightly,and the boiled potatoes (from our garden) so that all the flavors would blend.

Spiced poached pear
We finished the dinner with a light dessert.  I decided to serve something both light and Alsatian.  Pear trees flourish in Alsace and are frequently used to make pear brandy.  They are also used to make the famous Alsatian fruit cake/bread known as Bierwecke.  Not having any real Alsatian pear brandy, and knowing from experience that the fruit cake is quite heavy, I decided to us our own Bosc pears to play off the pear theme and make some spiced poached pears.  I followed David Lebovitz's recipe.  I think I added too much ginger because after poaching the pears the ginger flavor dominated.  To take off that hot, almost bitter edge, I reduced the liquid with a bit of pomegranate syrup.  It tasted divine.  I served them on top of an Amaretto and Mascarpone Cream topped with crumbled, Amaretti cookies.  Then we made ample use of wine as a digestif.  We were satiated.

1 comment:

jake said...

That sounds amazing. Especially on a cold Northern Idaho day. It makes me want to have pork chops and sauerkraut for dinner tonight. Great work.