I’m a fairly big fan of choucroute. If you live in Alsace (as I do), it kind of goes with the territory. This famous cabbage pickle (aka sauerkraut) plays a prominent part in both my books on the cuisine of Alsace and it crops up regularly chez nous, both at workshops and at home. I’m also, dontcha know, a choucroutière d’honneur in the ranks of the Confrérie de la Choucroute, the society of choucroute-lovers founded in the Sundgau in 1987 by a group of local chefs headed by Nicole and Roger Fischer of the Restaurant Studerhof in Bettlach (Nicole’s late father is pictured here, shredding cabbage for choucroute in the old-fashioned way, picture by John Miller for A Taste of Alsace).
The aim of this august body is to promote the typical pickle in all its forms by organising and participating in all kinds of cultural and gastronomic events, assembling restaurateurs, gastronomes, oenophiles, gourmets, journalists and anyone else willing to sign up to this important cause, as well as cementing relations with choucroute producers, winemakers, brewers, cheesemongers and the like. There’s also mention of the importance of research into recipes involving choucroute, both ancient and modern.
I take my duties as choucroutière d’honneur seriously and I never miss the chance to sing the praises of this iconic food. That’s what this post is all about.
I have to confess right away, I’m not an unconditional fan of the classic choucroute garnie, piled high with sundry sausagery and smoked porky pieces, plus (one of my pet horrors), pallid, peeled, steamed ovals of potato (aka Salzkartoffeln in German). Once a year at the Studerhof after a really good walk in the Bettlach woods is enough for me.
What really floats my choucroute boat is the association of the crunchy, salty shreds of cabbage with fish – oily fish first and foremost (salmon, sea trout) and also freshwater fish of the kind that frolic in our rivers round here (pike-perch) or Arctic char, the sort my husband used to fish up in the hill lochs of Wester Ross, and which are also found in high-altitude Alpine lakes.
I recently received news of a prizewinning choucroute/fish combo from Jean-Paul Acker, a young chef working with Roger Bouhassoun and Daniel Stein in the kitchens of the admirable Hotel-Restaurant La Cheneaudiére in the Vosges (whose resto features in my Decanter article listing my Ten Top Places to Eat in Alsace today). Acker’s recipe for Choucroute d’Alsace aux Poissons scooped the prize for this year’s best choucroute recipe, in a competition staged annually by the Federation of Chefs of Alsace. It sounds terrific, right up my alley. I’d order it in a heartbeat if I were anywhere near.
My plan was to translate and reproduce the recipe but it turned out to be a bit of a challenge – as chefs’ recipes so often are. In brief, the chef instructs that you first cook your choucroute (that’s the easy bit) with onions, wine, water and lots of spices for about 25 minutes. Then the fish: pieces of pike-perch fillet have to be egged and breadcrumbed; Arctic char fillet has to be cooked at low temperature at 70 degrees C for 20 minutes while the pike gets a pounding in the food processor with egg white and cream before being formed into quenelles and poached. Still with me? You’ve only got a potato purée to make, gorgeously enriched with loads of egg yolks, butter and a little horseradish – a nice Alsatian touch that, too – which you will pipe into nice balls and bake in the oven till golden. Oh and a white wine cream sauce with a fish stock reduction, loads of cream and a little mustard.
To put the whole thing together you toss the smoked trout, pike-perch and quenelles in hot butter till lightly coloured, arrange them on top of the choucroute together with the potato balls and drizzle some sauce around. Got it?
Here’s another, even simpler idea that also plays on the choucroute/fish theme: finely shredded raw choucroute mixed with a little crème fraiche and horseradish, crowned with thinly sliced smoked salmon and served over a lamb’s lettuce and avocado salad. Pretty good it is too, though I say it myself. And we’re not even breathing the word ‘healthy’, which is the kiss of death for any food. Suffice to say it’s packed with Vitamin C (choucroute has it in spades), Omega 3s in the salmon, and goodness galore in the avocados.
CHARLOTTES OF SMOKED SALMON AND CHOUCROUTE
Serves 8 as a starter
400g raw choucroute/Sauerkraut
4 tablespoons crème fraîche
2 tablespoons horseradish cream
1 tasty eating apple, unpeeled, cored and diced very small
Freshly ground black pepper
8 slices smoked salmon, about 400g
Corn salad (mâche/Nüsslisalat)
A little vinaigrette
- Rinse the choucroute in abundant cold water, drain and squeeze out excess water and chop finely.
- Put in a bowl and mix with horseradish cream, crème fraiche, diced apple and pepper.
- Cut smoked salmon discs to fit in the bottom of ramekins. Chop the rest in small pieces and add it to the choucroute.
- Lay smoked salmon discs in the bottom of ramekins, pack choucroute salad on top.
- Refrigerate the charlottes till serving time.
- To serve, arrange some corn salad leaves in a circle on plates, like little green tongues. Run a knife around the inside rim of the ramekins and turn them out over the corn salad.
- Cut avocados in half, remove stones/pits, cut each half in slim segments and remove peel.
- Place avocado segments around each charlotte, drizzle with a little vinaigrette and perch a bouquet of corn salad on top