The Sweet Scent Of Sauerkraut

September 04, 1991|By Carleton Jones

Ireally think I could pay off the auto loan quickly if I could think of an adequate diet consisting solely of cabbages, bananas and oatmeal, then package it and sell it.

In this day of occasional 50-cent tomatoes and lemons, a head of cabbage, fresh and green, does come with an increased allure.

Though we think of it ordinarily as an accompaniment for such wintry specialties as corned beef platters and pork roasts, cabbage and its pungent daughter sauerkraut deserve at least another look in late summer because (1) it is so plentiful and (2) you may not have tried it since the late 1970s. (Plenty of other people have, however, for industry sources say Americans eat 210,000 tons of kraut annually.)

Using sauerkraut with versatility takes some thinking to shake out the cliches of the past -- my two best cabbage dishes with them. They were a family-style cole slaw and a stuffed cabbage roll formula done Armenian-style (plenty of sage and ground pork and onion). The cole slaw was made by a favorite aunt who used a razor sharp chef's knife. She would shave away at a single head of cabbage for at least half an hour, building up tender, razor thin, transparent slices that produced ethereally light slaw, delicately seasoned with celery seed and cream.

In those days, my sauerkraut experience was limited to an endless procession of Maryland Thanksgiving turkeys and deli Reuben sandwiches. That there were other worlds of kraut, outside of slaw and the turkeys and the sandwiches, never occurred to me. Kraut with hot dogs -- a "standard" of Philly, Milwaukee or St. Louis and points west -- never seemed to become epidemic in a Baltimore smothered by the assault of chili dogs with chopped onions.

The fact is, it is sauerkraut in one or another form that is, by all odds,the most popular cabbage preparation of all time.

There are a number of major sauerkraut festivals in the United States, most of them held from August to October; Waynesville, Ohio; Phelps, N.Y., Franksville, Wis., and Scarpoose, Ore., are among the sites. It's an everyday dish in Europe from Paris to Moscow. In eastern France, choucroute, the national dish of Alsace, holds forth. In Bavaria and in Poland and the Balkan states, shredded cabbage mixed with apples sometimes goes the sweet route with vibrant currant jelly, spiced with red wine, cloves and cinnamon sticks. Scandinavians mix their cabbage dishes with diced apples and smother them in orange-flavored cream.

So how can you set about an exploratory kitchen session with kraut?

If you are lucky enough to have an ethnic deli close by, chances are, its sauerkraut is as good as you are likely to find or make at home, your second best choice. A third choice (if you are in a hurry) is kraut from a can and here, opinions differ. Some cooks will used canned cabbage if cooking is involved. Whether canned or bought in bulk, sauerkraut always has had a must preparation step: Rinse the batch and drain it well before using.

When laying down the shredded cabbage in a home sauerkraut operation, a shade more than 1 table spoon of kosher salt per pound of cabbage is about right. Sauerkraut must be weighted in glass or ceramic crocks and kept under brine water at an ideal temperature of about 60 degrees. Freshly cooked and frozen sauerkraut is said to be as good as fresh from the crock. If your kraut turns pink or limp or dark wholly or in spots, throw it out. If you find that you must add brine water while your sauerkraut is ripening, add 1 1/2 teaspoons of kosher salt to every quart of water used to cover.

The oddest use of recent years is the addition of sauerkraut to lush chocolate cake preparations. The flavor of the kraut will be undetectable, but it is said to give chocolate preparations a hint of expensive Swiss chocolate flavor while it also helps keep the cake fresh.

The dietary benefits of sauerkraut include richness in vitamin C, potassium and fiber and thinness in calories. Freezing kraut is eminently practical and should produce a thawed out product as good as the original.

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