This past weekend we stopped in for lunch at Brasserie Les Halles*, which I always call “Tony’s Place” (Tony Bourdain). After placing an order for the perfect cold-winter-day cocktail, a Maker’s Mark Manhattan—stirred, not shaken, we noticed that a “February Specials Menu” was sitting atop the regular menus on the bar (I prefer to eat only at the bar at Tony’s Place). The special menu featured "Choucroute Garnie dishes along with a suggested pairing of Alsacian wines."
I didn’t know exactly what “Choucroute” was, but for the past several months have been (slowly) trying to delve into the French cuisine arena. For example, last month it was the “Carcuterie” at Bar Boulud, which I learned was a meat-lover’s paradise. My companion seemed to think that “Choucroute” was a special menu of pate’ a’ la’ the Carcuterie at Bar Boulud. However, I believed otherwise since sauerkraut and potatoes were the common denominator in every dish. (later I learned it was another meat-lover’s paradise). Now I grew up having sauerkraut virtually every week (I’m Polish) and haven’t eaten it since 1984, but figured what the heck—let’s give it a try. Since the Choucroute de Poisson dish included only seafood, I opted for that selection. My companion ordered the Choucroute de Canard (aka duck).
First, we started with an order of what I believe are the best escargots in the City—tasty, melt-in-your mouth, and free of any grit. And a glass of Alsatian pinot noir was recommended as the wine selection to accompany our meals.
The dishes of choucroute arrived; and yes, the main focus was sauerkraut. A pile of it braised in Reisling in the middle of the dish—mine surrounded by the seafood sausage, smoked salmon sausage, monkfish medallions, sea scallops, smoked herring, salmon caviar and steamed potatoes. My companion’s choucroute was sauerkraut slowly cooked in Gewurztraminer wine and surrunded by foie gras and duck sausage, duck leg confit, duck gizzards and steamed potatoes. I didn’t taste the duck, but my seafood combination was very light and tasty. The sauerkraut tasted the same way it did in 1984.
As I did after dining at Bar Boulud last month and learning about charcuterie, I also performed some research about choucroute garnie following the experience at Tony’s. In addition to the dishes that we enjoyed, others that were featured on his menu were the more traditional preparation of choucroute:
Traditional Choucroute Garnie
Smoked pork loin and veal breast, sausages, steamed potatoes and
sauerkraut slow-cooked in Pinot d'Alsace
Choucroute les Halles
Smoked ham hocks, pork loin and belly, blood sausage, steamed potatoes
and sauerkraut slow-cooked in Alsatian beer
Choucroute garnie is a famous Alsatian recipe for preparing sauerkraut with sausages and other salted meats and charcuterie (I know about this one now) and potatoes.
Although sauerkraut is a traditionally a German and an Eastern European dish, French annexation of Alsace and Lorraine following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 brought it to the attention of French chefs and it has since been widely adopted in France.
In principle, there is no fixed recipe for this dish - any preparation of hot sauerkraut with meat and potatoes could qualify - but in practice there are certain traditions, favorite recipes, and stereotypical garnishes that are more easily called choucroute garnie than others. Traditional recipes call for three types of sausage: Frankfrut sausages, Strasbourg sausages, and Montbeliard sausages. Fatty, inexpensive or salted cuts of pork also often form a part of choucroute garnie. Other recipes call for fish, goose or duck meat, but this is far less typical. Note: These particular types of choucroute are available on the menu at Tony’s place.
The sauerkraut itself is usually heated with Riesling or other dry white wines or stock. In some recipes, it may also be cooked with chopped onion and sliced apples. In addition to the wine, a traditional recipe would include black peppercorns, cloves, garlic, juniper berries, onions, and bay leaves. (Source: Wikipedia)
So for my past two experiences at French bistros, I learned a lot about some food that I would not have otherwise ever been exposed to. Since I eat mostly fish and fowl, it’s not like I go out of my way to learn about meat and it’s certainly unlikely that choucroute or carcuterie items will be featured on the Food Network or Take Home Chef.
What’s next? Let’s wait and see.