Thursday, May 6, 2010

choucroute garnie

My husband is infatuated with choucroute garnie.  For as long as we've been coming to Paris, Caleb has been on the hunt for the perfect choucroute.  We've tried it at various small-time brasserie, and every visit, we always say, "Oh, let's try Lipp this time."  But somehow, we never get there.  Other restaurants beckon, or markets seduce.  We came quite close to eating there just the other night, but instead went to another very, very small Parisian institution La Pied de Fouet.  But that's another story.  Or stories.

There is no set recipe for choucroute garnie or "cabbage cooked and garnished".  The cabbage is actually fermented, just like sauerkraut, and that stands in for the cooking.  Classically, the dish can be any preparation of hot sauerkraut served with meat and potatoes, but there are a few key rules to follow.  Traditional recipes call for three types of sausage: Frankfurters, Strasbourg, and Montbeliard.  Fatty salted cuts of pork like ham hocks, pork knuckles, shoulders, or fat back are a must.  Very occasionally, you'll see fish or goose meat, but this would be rare.

The sauerkraut is usually heated up with a glass of Riesling and goose or pork fat.  It some recipes, especially in mountainous areas, you may find it cooked with onions and sliced apples.  Every authentic sauerkraut recipe includes black peppercorns, cloves, garlic, juniper berries, onions, bay leaf, and wine.  In autumn, in Germany, they prepare the sauerkraut in special crocks to sit and cure over the winter. 

Choucroute garnie, while a typically French dish found in every brasserie worth it's salt pork (brasserie means beer brewing in or brewery in French, hence choucroute is always served with beer), hails from more Germanic or eastern European tribes.  It became part of the French lexicon when France absorbed Alsace et Lorraine on the German-French border so many years ago.

This time in Paris we forgo Brasserie Lipp one more time, and our choucroute is procured at the Motte-Piquet Market.  There is a notorious, as in flirtatious, butcher there specializing in pork.  He has one of the largest booths on the street.  He quips, tosses, smiles, winks.  There, we see all the makings of classic choucroute.  We stand on line and wait for the butcher--or is it the butcher's wife?--to wait on us.  We ask for choucroute garnie for two.  She sets us up right: the white, almost transluscent sauerkraut flecked with juniper berries and whole peppercorns, Frankfurters, Alsation sausages, and fatty salted pork shoulder.  We'll make our own roasted potatoes.  At the apartment, we already have Kronenbourg chilling. 

The butcher's wife, if that's who she really is, does not like that I've taken my camera out to photograph the scene.  I don't like posed pictures, so I'll be the first to admit, I'm a little sneaky, though my camera is too large to be inconspicuous.  I watch another American woman in the line ahead of us ask to take photos and the butcher's wife smiles and strikes a pose with her knife.  That's not what I'm looking for.  I only know that she is not pleased with me and my Sony Cybershot, the last of its kind with a Zeiss lens, when we say "Bonne Journee" and make to leave.  She pierces me with a rather deadly stare.  Guilt quickly sets in on my part as I think of good manners and politesse....

At the apartment that night, we set the table, light the candles, and heat up our prize.  Maybe we'll get to Brasserie Lipp the next time we visit, but I rather think that we may never get to Lipp as if we are holding it out as the quintessential choucroute experience that we never want to spoil by actually eating there.  Perhaps we've created too much of a temple out of the notion.  Or maybe it will be saved for the last meal we ever have in this great city.  A send off of nostaligic proportions.

Caleb thinks his fascination began when he read somehwhere about the traditional Parisian brasseries that were opened by the influx of Alsations that came to Paris for work in the 19th century.  But it's been a fascination for so long, he can't quite remember why.  Other than the dish just tastes so damn good. 

Here's to the butcher's wife,,,,