When you like to cook, people automatically assume that cookies, cakes, preserves, and pickles are things you should do well. I must admit that mastering these skills does come with a number of perks. You can make many friends in the office if you make good cookies, and ability to preserve foods is a sure sign of home cook’s practicality and resourcefulness. Unfortunately, I posses neither talent. Cookies and cakes require measurement, and pickling takes meticulous cleanliness (sterilizing the jars, etc). The worst thing is that both require tremendous amount of patience. You can’t just stick your finger into it every few minutes and see how it’s doing.
Imagine my surprise, that in spite of my lack of precision, sterile cleanliness, or patience, I was able to produce amazingly good sauerkraut. It was so good that even my Grandma would be proud of me -- and she is a Russian sauerkraut maker extraordinaire. The Russian sauerkraut is a completely different story from anything you could possibly buy in an American store.* It is crunchy with a slightly prickly tang reminiscent of horseradish (though that’s not one of the ingredients). It’s way less sour than store bought stuff and more crisp.
I remember the huge bucket that took residence on my Grandma’s balcony in Moscow come autumn. I wasn’t particularly patient even then and was always bugging her – “When, oh when do we get to try the sauerkraut?” – until the big day would arrive. Finally, she’d remove the brick weighing down the cabbage, remove a few whole cabbage leaves coving the top of the bucket, and there it was – the most addictive cabbage known to man, dotted with ruby red cranberries.
Eating this stuff straight from the bucket is like licking peanut butter with your finger out of a jar. Who cares if it’s not how it was meant to be eaten; it’s just so darn good! Sauerkraut is one of those wonderful foods that can be as at home on a weekday supper table as on a holiday one. Once dressed with chopped scallions, fresh herbs (we like parsley, cilantro, and dill), and sunflower seed oil (the olive oil of Russian cooking), it is a dish of really beauty.
As much as I love sauerkraut, the idea of making it would have never crossed my mind if it wasn’t for our CSA. Did I tell you how much I love my CSA yet? I needed to find a use for a huge cabbage we got in our last share. Braising is always my favorite bay to cook it, but a large head of cabbage takes about a stick of butter and I was not in a stick of butter mood. Then I saw a pile of cranberries in my local produce market, and they immediately reminded me of my Grandma’s sauerkraut. I googled for recipes and found one by Joanie Grow on Sauerkraut Recipes Site. Joanie Grow didn’t sound particularly Russian (hey, neither does Helen Rennie), but her recipe seemed like the real deal with cranberries and all. I followed it the best I could. The only changes I made were skipping carrots and apples because I didn’t have any, and proclaiming my cabbage done after only 5 days instead of 10-12. Well, she did say to taste it, and it tasted pretty excellent to me after 5 days (or maybe that’s my impatient side talking). This sauerkraut is kind of like half sour pickles. It doesn’t have the overly pickled taste or texture, and that’s exactly why I love it.
You might wonder why I didn’t ask my Grandma for a recipe. Experience taught me that asking the women in my family for recipes doesn’t work. If I watch them, I can remember what they did, and then successfully recreate the process at home. But if I just ask them, I’d get a recipe like this: “Take a lots of cabbage, sprinkle with some salt, put in a bucket, and wait for it to ferment.” The recipes on many Russian recipe websites were not much more detailed, so I am really grateful to Joanie. Her recipe was the next best thing after watching my Grandma.
* There are some exception. Real Pickles in Western Massachusetts makes outstanding Russian style sauerkraut and pickles and they are available in Whole Foods and gourmet stores around Boston. They don’t market their products as “Russian style,” but I am sure any certified Russian would give them a stamp of approval.