The signature dish of Alsatian cuisine, Choucroute is a sensational vehicle for one of the most important culinary contributions the region has to offer--Charcuterie. Charcuterie is elevated to an art form in Alsace, where meat, mostly pork, is preserved in a variety of ways: as smoked parts of the pig (usually the belly); as sausages of widely varying types; and terrines, including mousse and head cheese.
In Choucroute, pieces of preserved pork are usually combined with one piece of freshly-cooked pork (I've usually used pork loin and even pork belly, but there is no limit--I know a couple of Alsaciennes who only use pig's foot and shank--a shank is in the photo--which is delicious), potatoes, and sometimes apples. The dish itself presents a kaleidoscope of textures, especially among the meats--some of which are large-grind sausages while some have the texture of a wiener. I prefer the sauerkraut to remain fairly crisp after cooking, but many recipes call for the fresh pork to be braised in the sauerkraut. This does yield tasty kraut, but it interrupts the textural contrast because the kraut becomes soft as cooked beans. I have solved this in many different ways, but one need not take this to such an extreme--it's perfectly good with soft kraut!
Here's my recipe:
Turn on the oven to 350º.
1. Using several changes of cold water, rinse 4 lbs. of sauerkraut in a large bowl. Drain and then squeeze it out well.
2. Cut enough yellow onions (usually 2 medium ones) into ¼-inch dice so that you have, more or less, 2 cups. Mince three or four cloves of garlic (so that you have at least 1 tablespoon). Grind 4 pieces of thick-cut bacon in a food processor for 8-10 seconds (or chop them finely with a knife). Transfer bacon to a large dutch oven (6-quarts or bigger) over medium-high heat and cook until fat is rendered and bacon is crisp (about 6 minutes). Add onions and ½ teaspoon of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and light brown around the edges (about 8 minutes). Add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for 30 seconds or until fragrant (no longer than 1 minute). Add ¾ of the sauerkraut and cook, stirring frequently, until it wilts and is steaming (about 10 minutes).
3. Stir in 2½ cups of dry Riesling, ½ cup of water, 2 bay leaves, 12 juniper berries, 16 coriander seeds, a pinch of ground cloves, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper. Bring to a boil.
4. Place 1½ lbs. of fresh pork loin or 2 lbs. of fresh pork belly into the sauerkraut, cover the pot and transfer it to the oven. If using a pork loin, cook until it registers 140°F on an instant-read thermometer, about 45 minutes. If using pork belly, cover with sauerkraut, reduce oven heat to 300°F and cook for 2 hours.
5. While the pork and sauerkraut is in the oven, prepare the sausages: Heat a skillet over medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil when hot, and brown 6 fresh pork sausages (bratwurst or knockwurst) on all sides, about 8 minutes (but do not cook them all the way through). Remove to a plate, tent with aluminum foil. Brown three smoked sausages (kielbasa is excellent) and three wieners or frankfurters (something akin to, but aspiring to be more than, a hot dog) in the same skillet, browning on all sides, also for about 8 minutes. Transfer to another plate and set aside.
6. Meanwhile, prepare 4 pounds of medium red potatoes by washing them and bringing them to a boil in a large pot with ¾ teaspoon of salt and sufficient water to cover by an inch. When they reach a boil, reduce heat and simmer until a knife can penetrate the center of the potato with little to no resistance (about 20 minutes). Drain the potatoes, leave in pot, covered, off heat.
7. When the pork and sauerkraut has about 15 minutes of cooking remaining, remove it from the oven, stir in the last pound of sauerkraut and nestle the fresh pork sausages in to finish cooking. 10 minutes after this, bury the remaining sausages in the sauerkraut as well.
8. When the pork has finished cooking, remove from the oven and allow to rest for 15 minutes. Discard bay leaves.
Serving: Pile sauerkraut onto a large serving platter or a wide, shallow pasta serving bowl. Arrange the potatoes around the edge of the sauerkraut and arrange the sausages on top, leaving a bare mound of kraut in the center. Slice the pork loin (or pork belly) and fan it across the center of the sauerkraut. Serve at the table with whole-grain mustard as an accompaniment.
I would really stick with Riesling here, obviously it would be better if it were from Alsace. Not a $12 one, though. Seek something with more muscularity along with its verve. There is a lot in this meal, and it's not exactly lightweight, so a stronger Riesling is more likely to go well.
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