Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Bless You, Julia Child

I like finding really useful things at estate sales.  And since I enjoy cooking, few things are more useful to me than the colorful vintage Pyrex bowls and casserole dishes I’ve found at estate sales over the last few months.

There are a lot of Pyrex bowls out there, and they usually aren’t exactly cheap.  The multicolored set of stacking mixing bowls I found were, and are, good for everything from whipping egg whites for meringue to making a double batch of chocolate chip cookies.
Even more versatile are the casserole dishes, some of which are large enough to double as mixing bowls. These thick glass containers with clear removable tops are from a day before almost everything was disposable. The original owner bought them assuming they would last for years, and her assumption was correct.

Looking at my set of nesting blue and white Pyrex dishes this evening reminded me that tomorrow, August 15th, would have been the 100th birthday of Julia Child.  The Internet is full of people who’ve been cooking their way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking (which she wrote with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle), adapting her recipes, sharing her legacy (and some are probably trying to mimic her voice).The largest blue Pyrex casserole dish in my cupboard is just the right size for soaking two pounds of sauerkraut when I make my own version of one of Mrs. Child’s recipes: Choucroute.

We first encountered choucroute on a trip to Paris a few years ago (she wrote dreamily).  Our Paris hotel was right around the corner from where Paul and Julia Child lived after World War II.  We took the high-speed train from Paris to the Alsace and back, marveling at how efficient the service was.  We ate dinner in Paris at the legendary Brasserie Lipp.  I ordered a basic poulet roti, but The Man of the House  -- who is much more adventurous than I – ordered something else that looked good on the menu, but which we’d never heard of.  He pointed at the menu listing for the attentive waiter.
“Choucroute,” the waiter said.  (He pronounced it something like "sha-kroot.")  “Very good, monsieur.” 

Choucroute turned out to be a savory casserole from the Alsace of ham hocks, sausages and sauerkraut (that wasn’t sour!) and indeed it was very good.   Apparently choucroute is what the French call sauerkraut, or sauerkraut is what the Germans call choucroute.  The Alsace is influenced by both cultures.  Whatever its origin, choucroute made my roast chicken seem rather dull by comparison. 

When we got back home to the States, I made sure I looked for a recipe for choucroute on the Internet and the first one I spotted was Julia Child’s.   As I perused Mrs. Child’s version of the dish and compared it with others, it became immediately apparent that one of the reasons the casserole is so good is that it is loaded with fat.  Julia’s recipe calls for an assortment of meats, bacon, and “butter or pork fat.”  Her friend Jacques Pepin’s recipe uses baby back ribs, hot dogs, Polish kielbasa and “duck or goose fat” served with boiled potatoes on the side. 

There's leeway in other aspects of the recipe as well.  Some sources say that Choucroute Garnie is made with white wine and a bouquet garni of herbs, peppercorns and juniper berries, or if you don't have juniper berries, some straight gin.  Choucroute Royale is made with Champagne instead of white wine. Some recipes use chicken stock and a small amount of white wine; some omit the stock and just add the whole bottle of wine.

I decided to create a version of choucroute that would preserve most of the basic flavors while reducing the amount of saturated fats. Given that any recipe that calls for ham hocks and sausages can’t really be considered “low fat,” I guess my version is “lower fat."  I don't keep juniper berries or gin around the house, so I omit those.  French chefs are divided over whether the recipe contains celery;  I like celery, carrots and onion together, so I use all three. And I add a little garlic just for good measure.   


This is a good recipe for cooler weather, when you can afford to keep the oven on for almost 5 hours straight. 

n  2 pounds good-quality sauerkraut
n  1/2 cup sliced carrots
n  ½ cup sliced celery
n  1 1/2 cups sliced onions
n  1 clove garlic, minced
n  2T. olive oil, butter, or a combination (not margarine)
n  1 bay leaf
n  1 cup white wine
n  3 cups chicken stock
n  Additional salt and pepper to taste
n  One large or two smaller ham hocks, with lots of meat on them
n  A few additional pieces of meat; for example, pork chops, smoked pork loin, ham or sausages.  The amount of meat you add should reflect the number of people you’ll be serving and how much room there is in the container you cook it in.  Read the recipe through first, look at the size of your casserole dish or Dutch oven, count your guests and use your best judgment.  The point is that the meat should be pretty much buried in the sauerkraut while it braises. 

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Drain the sauerkraut and soak it in cold water for 15 minutes.   (This is where my blue Pyrex bowl comes in handy).  Remove it from the water, drain it again and squeeze as much of the liquid out of it as you can.  (This is easiest if you squeeze it a couple of handfuls at a time.)

Cook the carrots, celery and onions in olive oil or butter in a large, heavy covered casserole dish or Dutch oven over medium-low heat on the stove for 10 minutes.  (Don’t let them get brown.)   Stir in the sauerkraut, making sure the strands are pulled apart, and continue cooking another 5-10 minutes. 

Pour in the wine and the chicken stock and add the bay leaf. Cover the casserole dish and set it in the middle of preheated oven. Cook slowly for 3 ½ hours.  Add a few sprigs of parsley, chopped, if you have them.  Brown the assorted meats in skillet.  Bury them in the casserole while the sauerkraut is still braising.  Continue to simmer the choucroute in oven for at least another 1 to 1 ½ hours. (Total cooking time is 4 ½ to 5 hours.)

Remove the bay leaf and serve the choucroute with potatoes (boiled or mashed) and a good crusty French bread.  If you're so inclined, you can also serve the rest of the bottle of white wine that you didn't use in the recipe.

Come to think of it, my own copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking came from an estate sale too. 


  1. Love your recipe and comments about France! I was there living I. The mid sixties.

  2. I used the mixing bowl to soak the sauerkraut, not to bake in. I have a couple of the lidded casserole dishes. :)