Sauerkraut on the menu for a hearty autumn dinner

I never really went for sauerkraut. I love cabbage a dozen ways–steamed, or rolled around a filling and baked in a sauce, or blanketed with cheese, or shredded raw in a slaw or taco filling. But fermented?–No thanks.

Then my friend Bob Rose introduced me to Pleasant Valley Farms organic sauerkraut, made just an hour’s drive north of here in the Skagit Valley. Here’s Bob standing in front of the operation’s fermentation tanks, near La Conner. (Pleasant Valley Farms has a great story of its own, by the way; stay tuned for an upcoming post about it.)

Love this sauerkraut! Tangy cabbage, not lumpy vinegar. Crisp and crunchy, not limp and slimy. Here’s the entire list of ingredients: organic cabbage, organic cabbage juices, water, and salt. That’s it. As it says on the package, “made the old-fashioned way.”

So I can add one more food product to my growing list of those that taste completely different when fresh or prepared authentically. Ever taste canned asparagus?–Don’t. Still shaking Parmesan from the green can?–Stop; buy a block of the real stuff and grate it yourself. And go get some of this great kraut. You can get it at Whole Foods now; look for it in its plastic pouch in the refrigerated case (and store it in your fridge at home).

After my Thanksgiving cook-a-thon (timelines! flowcharts!), I got interested again in the problem of recipes for whole meals, not just single dishes. So here is one way to use this sauerkraut in a very nice dinner for a chilly autumn evening!

Bratwurst with sauerkraut and beets on their own greens

Start about an hour and a half before you want to eat.

Preheat your oven to 425°. Choose beets (leafy tops intact) that are about the same size, so that they will cook evenly. (I used organic red beets from Ralph’s Greenhouse, also from the Skagit Valley!) Cut the greens off your beets (leaving a short stub) but don’t peel the beets or cut off their tails. (I gather that the stubs and tails help keep them from leaking juice during the roasting.) Rub them with a little olive oil, wrap them in aluminum foil, and roast them for about an hour. (When they are done, you will be able to pierce them easily with a sharp knife.)

After you get the beets in the oven, put the beet greens to soak in a bowl (or sink) of cold water. (At this point, you now have about an hour to kill.)

After the beets are roasted (say after you’ve watched the news), put them on a plate to cool and start the bratwurst. Bring a pan of water to a simmer, add the brats, and let them simmer for about 20-25 minutes. (Don’t boil them!–The casing will split open). Turn them over every so often.

After you’ve gotten the brats going, make a vinaigrette for the beets. Mince a clove of garlic, then add a half-teaspoon of kosher salt on top. Smear the garlic and salt around with the side of a knife-blade until you have a paste. Put it in a small bowl and mix it with a half-teaspoon of a nice coarse (country-style) dijon mustard and a tablespoon of good vinegar. (I used a nice sherry vinegar.) Then, whisking like crazy, add three tablespoons of a good olive oil. (I fill a tablespoon with oil, then rest that hand on the rim of the bowl and let the oil drizzle in as I whisk with the other hand. Then repeat twice.) Set the vinaigrette aside for now to let the flavors blend.

Chop about a quarter-cup of walnuts; toast them if you want to in a dry skillet (but watch them like a hawk because they burn easily).

Then, put a steamer-basket in a saucepan, add water up to the bottom of the steamer basket, and bring the water to a boil.  While you wait for the water to boil, take the beet greens out of the cold water they’ve been soaking in, trim about an inch off the bottoms of the stems, then cut the stems on the bias into pieces an inch or so long. Cut the leaves across their width into ribbons about an inch wide (in cooking school they tell me this is a chiffonade.)

Close to the end of the wurst’s simmer, heat up a skillet, turn the heat to medium-low,  and add a little oil. When the sausage is done, transfer it to the skillet and turn it occasionally as it browns nicely.

While the brat is browning, turn the heat to low under the saucepan with the steamer basket, add the beet stems, and cover the pot. After about five minutes, add the leaves and cover. Cook until the stems are tender and the leaves are wilted but still have nice texture and color. (When are they done? Nibble on a leaf and stem!–Cook them until they are the texture you like. I cooked mine about five more minutes after adding the leaves.)

As the brat continues to brown and the beet greens cook, rub the skins, stem stubs, and tails off your roasted beets. (Just rub them with your hands!–The skin slides right off.) Slice them into rounds and toss the rounds with some of the walnuts and vinaigrette. (Whisk the dressing again if it has separated.) Put the sauerkraut in a microwave-safe bowl and zap it until it is steaming-hot. (Add caraway seeds or dill seeds if you like, but it is great by itself!)

Everything ready? Make two beds on your plate, one of sauerkraut and one of beet greens. Put the bratwurst on the sauerkraut and the dressed beet slices on the greens. Add some of the dijon mustard to the brat if you like. Sprinkle the beets with the rest of the chopped walnuts.

Pour yourself a German beer or a sturdy red wine and enjoy!