By JOHN DeMERS
The weather turning cold and rainy (or snowy in places depressingly nearby) accomplished two things. It made me pull out the brand-new heavy coat I bought for visiting Finland in less than a month. You know things are bad when Texans are wearing clothes intended for Finland. I resisted wearing the scarf I picked up on clearance, or the gloves, or that silly new hat with the earflaps.
The second thing cold weather accomplished was making me think of French-German choucroute garnie and, by sensory association, of the so-called sweet and sour cabbage my late father always made as one of his signature dishes. It didn’t seem to be an “old family recipe” – just something he’d picked up from a cookbook, perhaps during those nights he and my mother read recipes to each other across the kitchen table while swigging cans of Dixie beer. This was New Orleans, after all.
The choucroute garnie I enjoyed in Paris during my first visit that cold, rainy winter of 1974 was, like most things in this world, a lot blander than the stuff my Dad or anyone else I knew made. Then again, he spent his whole adult life in Louisiana running from the foods he’d had as a child in Boston – except for lobsters, clams and “New England boiled dinners,” the latter of which he inexplicably loved, no matter how much they stank up the house.
I was at a restaurant called Julien, which The New York Times had recently spotlighted as the best cheap meal in Paris. A real working man’s dive, I read. And since I, then as now, imagined myself a real working man, I had to go there. Plus, I could afford the (I think I remember) $5-7 The Times assured me you could feast on. Sadly, the owners had taken their sudden international fame to heart. They’d quickly remodeled, quickly dressed the waiters in tuxes, and more quickly still, raised their prices.
This was 1974, deliciously pre-euro. But I still think the entrées had risen toward $20 worth of French francs – and hell, my Left Bank cold-water walkup on the 5th floor with a WC down the hall was only $7, including breakfast and either lunch or dinner. The cheapest thing on Julien’s menu was the choucroute garnie (it’s mostly cabbage, so it could be), so I ordered it by default. It didn’t have a ton of flavor: the sausage sharing the tureen was gray-white, and the stewed or smothered cabbage was pale as it could be. If color equals flavor, as I usually preach, the dish tasted exactly the way it looked. But it was an icy-rainy night in Paris in February, and I had come into Julien half-soaked and shivering; the food was hot and wholesome and, well, like home. I was 22 years old and alone in a country where I knew no one. I needed a plate full of home.
So I was thinking yesterday, as cold weather kept me inside even though I now own a coat worthy of Finland: What if I made choucroute garnie (which the French learned from the Germans, supposedly around the Alsace-Lorraine region where the two cultures collided but also connected) – what if I made choucroute garni the way I halfway remembered from Restaurant Julien, but “fixed” every problem the dish had with memories of my father’s “sweet and sour” cabbage. Hmmm…
No color? Not on my watch! Caramelization (and carrots) to the rescue. No flavor? Hell, we in Texas have bacon and seasonings for that! I’m sure, tasting my creation now with a toast to my Dad (not Dixie, Australian shiraz), that all these world problems could have been remedied much earlier had France and Germany shared a border with the Gulf South.
SWEET AND SOUR CHOUGROUTE GARNIE
3-4 slices thick-cut bacon
4 links bratwurst
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup dry white wine (suggest: dry German or Alsatian riesling)
1 onion, sliced
¾ cup matchstick-cut carrots
1 head green or red cabbage, or combination
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
¼ cup balsamic rice vinegar
½ cup sugar (more if desired)
Creole seasoning to taste
¾ tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1teaspoon crushed red pepper
½ teaspoon onion powder
½ teaspoon garlic powder
In a large pot with a lid, brown the bacon and the bratwurst, rendering the flavorful fat, in the olive oil. Remove the bratwurst and the bacon slices to drain on a paper towel. Crumble the bacon. Over medium-high heat, deglaze the pot by pouring in about half the wine and scraping up the browned bits from the bottom. Just before the wine has evaporated, stir in the onion and carrots, cooking until the onion turns golden. Then add the cabbage and stir together.
As soon as cabbage has started to cook, pour in the vinegars (using only either one is okay, but they are better together), along with the remaining wine and the sugar. Stir in the crumbled bacon. Bring to a boil. Season with all the remaining ingredients. Cover the pot, lower the heat and simmer until cabbage is tender, about 20 minutes. Add more sugar if desired. Serve 1 link of bratwurst – reheated in the cabbage when ready – on each plate with a mound of the cabbage. Also, a mixture of jasmine and wild rices can be excellent with this spooned over the top. Serves 4.
Note: For a different but equally wonderful flavor, substitute Shiner Bock for that Riesling. The German-Czech-rooted town of Shiner, Texas, produces some of the best bratwurst I’ve ever tasted, so using beer might be the proper recognition.