Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sauerkraut for the winter

For the past 10 years, I have lived in profoundly urban settings: Manhattan and Chicago. It is has been virtually impossible for me to survey my land and living space and imagine how the area looked when it was wild, or when it was pastureland. My trip to New England reawakened my historical imagination. Hiking through the woods, surveying old stone walls and foundations, finding old apple trees in overgrown land, the past history of the land bubbled into my consciousness. It was easy to feel what the the land looked like before Route 4 and gas stations. My heightened sense of history also brought a heightened sense of the anxiety one must have felt at the onset of winter. I imagined being a European settler, standing in the root cellar, surveying the stockpiles of vegetables, preserves, and cured meats and thinking "Well...this is it. Hope I have enough to get to late springtime". What fears must mothers have had looking at their young children and rationing portions early in the winter, just to be sure there was enough to last through March.

For all of my commitment to slow food and local eating, in the end I know that the store is just a quick walk away, and there is a vast hinterland systematically shipping food to my urban center all through the winter. And who am I kidding? I don't just shop when supplies run low, but when gastronomic boredom sets in. It is one thing to have enough sauerkraut and salt pork to survive, but it is another thing to eat it every day for 4 months. Seasonal eating often means months of the same food. Even in that bountiful month of August, my family tires of basil and tomato salad every day. Of course, nutritionists might argue that there's an upside to gastronomic boredom. We then tend to eat what we need, and no more. Studies show that the more we stray from seasonal eating, and the more we have access to what we feel like eating whenever we want, the higher the rates of obesity. A little bit of winter rationing and gastronomic boredom might go a long way to improving our overall health. And, the benefit of a seasonal diet is that those tomatoes are going to taste amazingly wonderful when they finally arrive, a stark contrast to old potatoes and spring greens. The changes of the season will be more exciting and more vivid than anything we experience now.

These historical musings made me return to one of my favorite cookbook writers, Elisabeth Luard, and specifically her classic reference The Old World Kitchen. For anyone who is half-cook, half-anthropologist, the book is a must-read, filled with treasures that I have never found elsewhere, despite a lifetime of voracious recipe gathering. My particular favorite is her recipe for a barrel of sauerkraut -- a recipe she herself tested. This woman is a kindred spirit. What did she do with all of that sauerkraut? She wasn't facing a cold, resource-poor Bavarian winter. Her kids must have rued the day that barrel was first rolled out.

On much a smaller scale, I just put up 4 pints of sauerkraut from a single head of cabbage I bought at the farmers market 6 weeks ago. Sauerkraut is easy to make: shred fresh cabbage, salt it with pickling salt and stuff it in a clean crock. The next morning, inspect the crock and see how much brine was formed. If the cabbage is not completely submerged, than mix more pickling salt in water and add to the crock (precise ratios and measurements can be found at http://www.freshpreserving.com/ ).Traditional recipes call for weighing the cabbage down with a plate, but the more modern solution taught by Eugenia Bone appeals to me: fill a gallon ziploc with brine and use it as a weight. Leave it in a cool place, and slowly over 3 to 4 weeks it will ferment. You will see bubbles rising to the top. When the bubbles stop, it's ready to be eaten or canned. I used a raw-pack method and processed my pint jars for 20 minutes in a boiling-water canner. My husband is already concerned about our 4 pints. We'll do a hot dog night at some point, and maybe a German party: sauerkraut, sausages and wursts, beer. "And then what?" he asks, "What will we do with all of this?". He's lucky I couldn't find a barrel.

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