Saturday, December 31, 2011

Traditional New Years Foods

Today is New Years Eve Day which means another turn of the cycle.  I personally don't have too many superstitions associated with the New Year, but, there are certain food traditions in our family associated with the holiday.  Not surprisingly, these traditions are informed by the local food culture of the Lehigh Valley.

The traditional New Years good luck dish around here is pork and sauerkraut "Schweinefleish und Sauerkraut."  I am told by my brother (a former Wegmans employee) that the year Wegmans opened, there were huge shortages of both pork and sauerkraut leading up to the holiday.  This suggests that the German heritage of the valley is still alive and well among the old-guard and newcomers alike.  My butcher at the farmers market also made sure that I reserved a pork shoulder (Boston butt) well in advance of the holiday because he also has massive runs on the prime cuts.

A little more on the tradition itself . . . .  Many of the original inhabitants of the Lehigh Valley were of German origin.  They were not "Dutch" as the term Pennsylvania Dutch might imply.  Instead the term "dutch" is a bastardization of the German word for German "Deutsch" which early English settlers mispronounced.  The Germans who settled in the Lehigh Valley were mostly from the Electorate of Palatine on the Rhine (around present day Cologne).  Those settlers brought with them many traditional German foods such a sauerkraut (which was used to preserve cabbage for the winter months) and hogs which were the predominant meat in early Pennsylvania.  Both cabbage and hogs grow well in the Lehigh Valley which has a climate similar to the Palatine.

Why pork and sauerkraut came to symbolize good luck I do not know.  However, it probably had its roots in the practicality and sensuality of the meal.  Hogs were not typically butchered until November when the weather was cold enough to prevent quick spoilage of the meat.  Meats that would go bad quickly like offal were eaten first and formed the basis for foods like scrapple or preserved through charcuterie techniques.  Hams were cured and then placed to smoke in the hearth of the home in the tradition of Westphalia.  Other fresh cuts could be preserved for a month or so in brine or made into country sausages--both of which figure in traditional pork and sauerkraut dishes.

Sauerkraut, too, would have been plentiful and much of it would be finishing fermentation around the new year.  Cabbage can be grown most of the year in Pennsylvania and a June/July planting will yield cabbages ready by late October.  These cabbages can usually be left in the ground for another month or so in the November cold and processed into sauerkraut in early December.  (It was important to extend out the cabbage season as long as possible to keep sauerkraut fresh until spring vegetables started to arrive in early May).  Fermentation takes about month and, thus, would have been ready toward the middle to end of December.

And so, come late December, the Pa. Dutch farmer would have had a "second harvest" of pork products and preserved cabbage ready to keep the family going through the winter until the spring thaw.  Certainly, a farm family would have felt blessed to have this new food on hand to bring in another year of the agricultural cycle.  And, the sensuality and savor of sauerkraut properly braised in pork fat followed up with a tankard of beer is enough to sate almost any fear of the unknown and welcome a new and hopeful year.

Having said that, lets review what pork and sauerkraut was not:  it was not a healthy dish.  In fact, it's pretty terrible for you.  The traditional dish was meant to be a thanksgiving for the bounty of land and that land provided foods that were unctuous and sating.  This isn't a bad thing.  Its all right to eat poorly once and a while to remind ourselves of what things used to be like and how the people who lived before us eat and celebrated the lives they lived.  And, lets face it, cabbage braised in pork fat is simply, irrefutably, delcious.  Life is worth the indulgence.

So, that generally, is what what pork and sauerkraut is not.  As a more specific point, pork and sauerkraut is not a pork loin boiled in a can of industrial sauerkraut.  If you ever had pork and sauerkraut and thought it was insipid, raw, and disgusting, this is probably how it was prepared.  Instead, I want to make the following recipe available.  If you make this and savor it you will know why those early German farmers thought this meal meant good luck in the new year.

The following recipe is adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child.  The recipe is for a French peasant dish known in the French as choucroute garnie.  Roughly translated this means garnished sauerkraut.  Although this dish is French, it comes from the territory known as Alsace, which history buffs know was an area of France contested for hundreds of years between the German peoples and the French peoples.  Alsace is, geographically, close to the Palatine, and several wars in the mid-seventeanth century fought in Alsace actually helped spur immigrations to America from the Palatine.  The refinement of this dish marked by removing much of the brined flavor of the cabbage and creating a braising liquid with wine and stock would have been much closer to the Palatine palate compared to the brute flavors of raw sauerkraut preferred in other parts of Germany.

Choucroute Garnie

1 Boston Butt (available from farmers market)
1 Tbs. Lard (or vegtable oil)

2 lbs fresh sauerkraut (available from Farmers Market)

1/2 lb slab bacon (available from the Farmers Market)
1/2 cup thinly sliced carrots
1 cup sliced onions

4 sprigs parsely
2 bay leaves
6 peppercorns
10 juniper berries
1 cup dry white wine (or dry Apple Wine)
2 to 3 cups chicken stock

1.  Forty-eight hours before making the dish, liberally sprinkle Boston butt with salt and white sugar.  Cover and place in a non-reactive pan.

2.  Drain sauerkraut from its container and then place in a non-reactive bowl and fill with cold water.  Swish the sauerkraut around once or twice and after 8 minutes, pour off the water and collect the kraut in a colander.  Return the kraut to the bowl and again fill the bowl with cold water.  After an additional 8 minutes, strain the kraut.

3.  After straining the kraut a second time take small handfuls of the wet kraut out of the colander, squeeze all the water out of it with your hands, and reserve the dry kraut in a non-reactive bowl.  Once all the kraut has been squeezed dry, work to separate the kraut back out into individual strands of cabbage.

4.  Cut the slab of bacon into individual 1/4 inch lardons.  Once cut, add these lardons to a pan of boiling water for ten minutes.  Strain and reserve the lardons.

Homemade Slab Bacon

Bacon Cut into Lardons
5.  Add the lard to a dutch oven over medium-low heat.  The dutch oven should be capable of holding the Boston butt without the butt touching the side of the pan.  When the fat shimmers, add the pork fat side down until lightly browned.  This will render out several tablespoons of lard.  Flip the butt to the other side and brown over medium-low heat.  If possible, try to prevent a fond from forming as it will later discolor the sauerkraut. Once the butt is browned remove it from the dutch oven but do NOT pour off the rendered fat.

Boston Butt Fat Side Down

 Browned Boston Butt

6.  After removing the butt, add the carrot, onion, and blanched lardons.  Sautee over low heat for ten minutes.  Do not allow to brown.

7.  To the onions, carrots, and lardons, add the reserved sauerkraut.  Cover and saute slowly for ten minutes.

8.  While the sauerkraut is slowly sauteing, tie the parsley, black pepper, and juniper berries in a small piece of cheese cloth.  Add this to the pan with the wine.  Add enough stock to just cover the top of the sauerkraut.

9.  Place in a 300 degree over for 2.5 hours.  Check regularly to ensure there is a slow simmer and that the liquid has not been absorbed completely.

After 2.5 Hours with Sauerkraut Pushed to the Side

10.  After 2.5 hours, place the pork, fat side down, back in the pan.  The browned side should remain up over the top of the cabbage to prevent discoloration of the braising liquid.

11.  Return the Pork and Sauerkraut back to the oven and braise for an additional 2.5 hours (5 hours total).  After 5 hours, the liquid should have been completely absorbed.  Serve the pork and sauerkraut with some buttered potatoes and maybe a salad with a sharp vinaigrette. Enjoy and praise the new year!

I'd also like to share a link to another blog on Pork and Sauerkraut written by a pair of Lehigh Valley transplants living in Idaho who shared my blog!  Thanks to them and Happy New Year!

1 comment:

  1. This page looks awesome as my Dad was born in Cooperburg and went to school in Allentown riding the train from Coopersburg to Allentown. I will link this page to our blog, Boise Foodie Guild. Cheers!