The summer that I turned thirteen, something truly exciting happened in my reading life. I discovered Ernest Hemingway. What began as a weekend family trip to the mall and progressed through my usual round of begging my mother to buy me an armload of assorted novels from Waldenbooks ended with me spending endless weeks locked in my sweltering room poring over the major works of Hemingway and in particular losing myself in “A Farewell to Arms.” This masterpiece about the ravages of war chronicles the sweeping and ill-fated romance between wounded American ambulance driver Fred and Catherine the British nurse with whom he eventually attempts to flee the senseless carnage of WWI for a peaceful life in neutral Switzerland. When I finally emerged I found myself plagued by two nagging questions:”Can any substantial good can come of individual acts of morality or nobility in a world that is so profoundly corrupt?” And, perhaps more importantly: “What the heck is choucroute, anyway?”
The first question fueled a decade long fascination with nihilism and influenced me to adopt a grandly depressive, ruminant and frankly insufferable public persona throughout my teens and early twenties. My second big Hemingway question, the one about choucroute, took nearly as long to resolve in that pre-Google era as my existential crisis of the soul. A quick perusal of the French-English dictionary had told me that the dish served to Fred in a Swiss café where he goes to wait out Catharine’s lengthy and ultimately fatal childbirth had something to do with cabbage (chou in French) and was probably a sauerkraut-type preparation. However, since Swiss and Northern French cooking was very far afield from my family’s usual dinner routine of pastas, roasts, chops and stews, the specifics remained a tantalizing mystery to me. It was not until I was about seventeen that I stumbled upon a recipe for “Choucroute Royale” in Julia Child’s classic, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and I finally understood that this dish was a rich braise of various cured pork products cooked in a wine-scented bed of kraut, onions, apples, juniper and caraway.
Hemingway is renowned for his economy of description and this minimalist detail is the perfect example of “show me, don’t tell me writing.” The warm and comforting nature of a peasant meal turns heartbreaking when contrasted with the backdrop of a raging, senseless global war and Fred’s more personal trauma, the imminent deaths of both Catherine and his infant son. Sitting by himself in a strange tavern, Fred dines alone on what should be a festive feast dish shared by his absent family and friends. Despite his efforts to resist its madness, the war has ultimately consumed everything in his life.
Since a platter of choucroute garni is best shared with a hungry group – I decided to invite some friends to join me for a meal influenced by the Swiss setting of the final chapters of A Farewell to Arms.
Assorted Cheeses and Charcuterie, Buttermilk Rye Loaf:
A small dish of double smoked sausage with assorted mustards pairs beautifully with firm, sweet Appenzaller and earthy German Champignon, a soft brie-like cheese studded with wild mushrooms. A plump homemade loaf of buttermilk rye is the perfect base for do-it-yourself canapés.
Often associated with Alsace-Lorraine, this rustic onion and bacon tart is also exemplary of the savory quiches and pies found in Romandy, the French-speaking portion of Switzerland. As the name indicates, the pie is cooked in a very hot oven, directly in the flames, as it were. This burst of intense heat gives the crust its characteristic crunch and helps to set and caramelize the toppings . Most of the comments from my tasters focused on contrasts: the lightness of the finished dough against the of rich, sweet sautéed onions, salty chewy bacon lardons and the thin layer of tart yogurt/Gruyere standing in for hard-to find fromage blanc.
But the alternate Germanic name of this dish, Flammekuche, also garnered some notes. As one of my friends observed: “Flammekuche? That sounds like something an unfortunate WWI soldier might have picked up at the local brothel while on weekend leave!” I’ll leave it to your discretion what to call this crispy treat, but I will suggest pairing it with a glass of dry Riesling or a frothy Alsatian ale.
There are a number of variations on the classic choucroute garni, but at its most elemental, this is a dish of aromatic cabbage, onions and apples used as the base to showcase a groaning assortment of smoked, salted and fresh pork products. Typically served during the long, winters choucroute was a way of making something warming, rich and tasty from preserved and long-keeping ingredients. There are two major component parts of the dish and each requires a small degree of preparation before they are combined and set in the oven for a long, slow braise.
Preparing the sauerkraut base is arguably the most time-consuming and important part of making a choucroute. The process begins with the rinsing and draining of good-quality purchased sauerkraut. I strongly prefer the type that comes in refrigerated 1lb bags as it has none of the metallic taste of canned varieties. Dump the kraut into a colander and sluice plenty of cold running water over it – then leave to drain for about 30 minutes. This removes most of the sour brine and leaves the cabbage tart, but not overpowering. While the kraut is draining, sliced onions are sautéed in butter or bacon drippings until they are golden fragrant. Thin pieces of peeled apples are added along with seasonings. These aromatics are tossed with drained kraut and layered into a casserole or deep roasting pan that is large enough to accommodate both the cabbage and assorted meats without crowding
A great choucroute may start with tasty sauerkraut, but is equally dependent upon a broad mix of high-quality meats to provide savor and variety to the plate. Traditionally German –style sausages like knockwurst or bauernwurst might be used, along with slab bacon, smoked ham hocks and other charcuterie. I opted for a selection of slab bacon, smoked pork chops, plump ham hocks, kielbasa from a local Polish deli and fresh pork neckbones. The neckbones typically have lots of attached fatty meat that becomes rich and unctuous with extended cooking – another good option would be country-style pork ribs. The bacon is cut in large chunks and cooked in a deep frying pan to render its fat. The now-crispy bacon is removed and the neckbones are added to the hot pan – browning them and flavoring them with the rich bacon drippings. These pre-cooked meats and their drippings are added to the pan of kraut along with chunks of the sausage, ham hocks and the smoked chops. The pan is doused with Riesling wine and a bit of gin – to provide a subtle juniper flavor – and then snugly covered and placed in a hot oven for several hours.
Once browned and bubbling, the choucroute is arranged on a large warmed platter. Traditionally this centerpiece is accompanied by boiled potatoes, slices of rye bread and spicy mustards. A crisp, fruity Gewürztraminer is the ideal wine pairing to balance the mix of rich pork and tart cabbage. Or, one could follow Hemingway’s original menu suggestion and like Fred, simply have a glass of beer – letting the bitter hops and malt add yet another layer of flavors to the dish.
My original menu called for the meal to close with a traditional Swiss chocolate fondue. But after the main course, one of my tasters succumbed in dramatic fashion to the effects of extended overeating. Groaning heavily, he lay down on the sofa, from where he did not rise until he was fortified with a medicinal glass of icy gin as a digestif. I took this and the vast quantity of leftovers as a sign that nothing more complex than an after-dinner drink was required to sate the exhausted palates of my tasting panelists!
I hope that you will take the opportunity to share these dishes which are inspired by the Swiss setting of A Farewell to Arms with a table full of your friends and family. With a table full of beautiful foods and the faces of your loved ones surrounding you, raise a glass to the long-hoped-for triumph of love over war and to the sincere hope for peace in our time.
Tarte Flambee (Flammekuche)
- 3 cups bread flour
- 1 packet active yeast
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup strained or Greek-style plain yogurt
- 1 cup finely grated Gruyere or Emmenthal cheese
- 3 cups of thinly sliced yellow onions
- 1/3 lb of thick cut bacon – cut crosswise into lardons
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme leaves, removed from stems
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Olive oil for greasing pans/bowls
To make dough – combine the first three ingredients in the work-bowl of a food processor and pulse to mix dry ingredients. Turn the motor on, and add the water in a thin stream until the dough comes together and rolls around the inside of the work-bowl in a ball you may not need all the water, or perhaps you will need a tiny bit more – this varies. Remove from the processor and place in a greased bowl, turning the dough over to coat its surface very lightly with oil. Cover and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 60 to 90 minutes. Remove dough from bowl and place it on a greased cookie sheet, stretching and patting the dough, use it to line the pan completely. If it offers too much resistance, simply cover it and walk away for 10 minutes. This gives the dough time to relax. Then resume stretching until the pan is filled with dough. Cover and let rise for about 30-60 minutes, while you prep the toppings.
Preheat the oven to 475F and place a rack two rungs up from the oven bottom
In a deep frying pan, cook the bacon lardons over medium heat until they are crunchy and golden-brown. Remove the meaty pieces from the hot fat and drain on paper towels. To the hot bacon fat, add the sliced onions along with thyme, salt and pepper. Cook them gently until they are translucent, and very slightly caramelized. Set aside to cool.
In a small bowl, mix the thick yogurt (you MUST use strained or greek yogurt) with the grated cheese until a heavy, curdy paste is formed.
Using a spatula, or the back of a tablespoon, spread a thin layer of the cheese mixture over the crust, leaving a clear, one inch border on all sides. Top the cheese with an even layer of sautéed onions and finally sprinkle the bacon lardons over the other toppings. The topping layer should be quite thin.
Slide the pan into the thoroughly pre-heated oven and bake for 30 -40 minutes, or until the edges of the crust are deep golden brown and the toppings are sizzling. Immediately, check to see if the crust is stuck to the pan anywhere – if so, slide a metal spatula under the tart to loosen it. Remove tart from pan and place on a wire rack to cool slightly. Slice into squares and serve. The tart is delicious either hot or at room temperature.
- 2 1lb bags of sauerkraut
- 2 large onions – about 4 cups sliced
- 2 medium tart apples peeled, cored and thinly sliced
- 4 smoked pork chops
- 2 slices of slab bacon (about 1 inch thick) rind removed, each slice cut in half
- 1 large or 2 smaller links of kielbasa – cut into 4 pieces total
- 2 meaty smoked hamhocks
- 1 package of pork neckbones or country-style pork ribs (about 4-6 pieces)
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme leaves, removed from stems
- 4 bay leaves
- 1 ½ cups of chicken stock or Riesling wine
- ¼ cup of good gin (Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray are best)
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 3 tbsp butter
- Sal and black pepper to taste
Empty the kraut into a colander and sluice plenty of cold running water over it – leave to drain for about 30 minutes. This removes most of the sour brine and leaves the cabbage tart, but not overpowering.
While the kraut is draining, heat the butter in a sauté pan until it is foaming and the solids have just begun to brown. Put the sliced onions in the pan and sauté over medium-high until they have turned golden are very soft. Add the sliced apples and continue to cook until they have softened a bit and give up some of their juice. Add the thyme, brown sugar and bay leaves plus a pinch of salt and black pepper to taste.
Toss this mixture thoroughly with the drained cabbage – making certain that the apples and onions are evenly distributed in the kraut. Now is the time to taste the vegetables for seasoning. Should you find the flavor to be too sour, add a bit more sugar, if it seems too sweet, try a bit more salt and in the unlikely case that it lacks bite this can be corrected by stirring in a drizzle of cider vinegar. Transfer the kraut to a deep casserole or roasting pan and set aside.
Preheat oven to 375F.
Cook the bacon slices in a deep frying pan over medium heat until most of their fat has rendered and the slices are crisp-tender. Remove the bacon and set it aside. To the hot bacon fat, add the raw pork neck bones or ribs and fry until they are browned, turning to cook all surfaces evenly. Reserve both meat and drippings to add to the braise.
To the pan of sauerkraut, add all your meats, nestle them snugly into the cabbage but leave some surfaces peeking out so they brown and become crispy in the oven. Sprinkle the wine or stock and gin evenly over the top of the braise – cover with a lid or foil and place in the oven for 2 hours. After 2 hours have passed, remove the cover and cook for about another hour, or until the kraut and meats are well-browned and the braising liquid has thickened a bit.
Pile the sauerkraut on a large warm platter and arrange the various meats over the top in an attractive fashion. Bring to the table along with a steaming bowl of boiled new potatoes tossed with herb butter, a loaf of sour rye or pumpernickel bread and an assortment of mustards.