I love German food. I love tangy sauerbraten, crispy skinned wursts, homemade spatzle noodles, cold cucumber salad with dill, and warm potato salad with bacon. I enjoy German food throughout the fall and winter, as it is pretty hearty and heavy, and sauerkraut is one of my favorites.
Sauerkraut comes from the German for "sour herb" and is shredded cabbage that has been pickled. Lactic acid works on the sugar in the cabbage and makes it sour. This process gives it a long shelf life and may actually increase the amount of anti-cancer agents in the cabbage.
A lot of people in Pennsylvania eat pork and sauerkraut on New Years Day in accordance with the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition of ensuring good luck and wealth. Pennsylvania "Dutch" is a misunderstanding of Pennsylvania "Deutsch" -- the German word for being German -- rather than an indication that the local people are from the Netherlands. Large amounts of people from Germany settled in Eastern and South Central Pennsylvania and, to this day, retain much of their own culture, agricultural practices, and dietary choices.
While my family is not Pennsylvania Dutch, we also maintain much of our German heritage through food. Like many other traditional family dishes, no two sauerkrauts are the same. My mother's is different from my grandmother's (who is so German we call her Oma), and both recipes are different from my own.
My Oma heats oil in a pot on the stove, and sautes sliced onion, sliced carrot, canned sauerkraut and shredded apple. She adds a little water, caraway seeds, a bay leaf, a grated potato, and some extra shredded green cabbage and brings it to a boil on the stove. Oma only cooks it for 30 minutes to retain the texture. Then she heats up the accompanying sausage in the sauerkraut, letting their juices get into the mix. The result is a tangy and slightly crunchy sauerkraut best eaten with the wursts within.
My mother, who is Romanian and Scottish, grew up eating sauerkraut mixed in with stuffed cabbage -- delicious, and, in my opinion, the best way to make stuffed cabbage. For plain sauerkraut, she has adapted Julia Child's recipe into what my husband calls "his favorite sauerkraut." She uses bagged sauerkraut and mixes it with a whole stick of melted butter and sliced carrots and onions in a dutch oven. Then she covers it with half chicken broth and half apple cider and bakes it at 325 for hours and hours. The result is a very buttery, soft and smooth sauerkraut best eaten with a pork roast.
My recipe starts with bacon fat, rendered from four or five strips that are set aside to mix in at the end. Into the bacon fat goes sliced onion and a chopped apple. When these have softened, I add rinsed canned sauerkraut, a few peppercorns, a bay leaf, a tablespoon of brown sugar and chicken broth to cover, I simmer this on the stove for at least an hour, adding more liquid if necessary. When it is time to eat, remove the bay leaf and add the bacon, crumbled. The result is a tangy but sweet sauerkraut that can be eaten with any pork product -- loin, roast, chops, or sausages.
I adore sauerkraut; I love the way its aroma fills the house, how its sour and sweet flavors meld, and the wonderful way it pairs with pork. I know this leaves me in the minority. We have friends who live in Northern Germany who are quick to remind me that not even all Germans love sauerkraut! When New Years Day rolls around in Pennsylvania, though, it is almost guaranteed that someone will make sauerkraut. And I, for one, will have a happy New Year because of it.
P.S. If you are still not sold on sauerkraut, even on New Years Day, a culinary school classmate and friend of mine has a blog about food and recently wrote about food traditionally eaten on New Years Day. (You can read it here.) Her recipe sounds delicious, and sauerkraut doesn't make her list.