It must be the German blood in my heritage but sauerkraut is one of those foods I've always enjoyed and occasionally will crave (as well as apple butter, thanks to my father who enjoyed slathering it on slices of fresh bread and butter or stirred into his cottage cheese). OK, so it's not one of the most attractive foods on a plate by itself but it is delicious if you like pickled, fermented shreds of cabbage that look like a pile of stringy worms. And it is also good with sausage, apples, pork, beets -- even as an ingredient in its own right.
As a child in Ohio, my parents would get frozen sauerkraut balls from Bisson's Market if they were entertaining or at the holidays. Most people wince and make faces when they hear of such a thing but most of us who hail from northeastern Ohio would take a sauerkraut ball over French fries any day of the week (and if fried in the right stuff, they are actually a vegetarian option, if you omit the diced ham found in some recipes, and also substitute something for eggs if you're a vegan).
On a trip to Akron last spring, I actually stopped at West Point Market for a little portable nosh before my six hour drive back to Kentucky. Among the food I got was a little box of sauerkraut balls from their counters of fabulous prepared foods. Yes, they are even delicious at room temperature but perhaps best, slightly warmed, with a bit of red sauce on the side. [Here is an interesting thread/discussion about sauerkraut balls at Roadfood.com.]
I've also loved Reuben sandwiches since my teen years, another food with apparent Midwestern origins (from Omaha, Nebraska). My mother's friend Twila Baker, who lived in Akron when we did, gave her a great recipe for them. As I don't have it, I improvised last week. Before Thanksgiving I got some half-decent sliced rye bread, a jar of sauerkraut, sliced Swiss cheese and lots of lean-ish corned beef from the deli, and a good quality Thousand Island dressing (or you can use Russian dressing--frankly, I can't tell the difference between them and am not sure which is the proper condiment for a Reuben). Thousand Island is one of those dressings I remember my mother making before a cookout: a bit of mayo, a bit of relish, a bit of ketchup, perhaps some chopped egg. I don't even know if she used a recipe.
All I know is when I was a kid, I couldn't stand it and I think it had something to do with watching the ingredients being mixed together and the resulting color. [On second read, and the addition of the food history origins of both dressings, I believe it was actually Russian dressing that my mother was making. I have just emailed her about this as clearly it is crucial information. Meanwhile, Mrs. Baker has just emailed me to confirm that yes, it was Russian dressing used in her Reubens. Also, Linda Stradley at What's Cooking America, lists the Reuben first hailing from New York City in 1914 although several later Omaha references are also mentioned. Reuben wars!] Speaking of Reubens and recipes, Reuben Casserole anyone? (from Allrecipes.com) And check out those "Planetary Frankfurters"~ Yum! [Note: these images were illustrated by Lou Peters for a series of Good Housekeeping cookbooks. You probably have a few in your own kitchen. I am indebted to Ward Jenkins and his fabulous detail-oriented blog, The Ward-o-Matic, for "borrowing" them.]
But to make a good Reuben, all you do is pile up the ingredients (the more corned beef the better) and grill on both sides, turning carefully, and cooking slowly so as not to burn. I don't know how the restaurants do it but that seems to be what works for us. If you want to gild the lily, serve extra dressing on the side, along with good potato chips and dill pickle spears.
Last week I was actually eating sauerkraut out of the jar, post my pneumonia (mild) diagnosis. I couldn't understand why so I looked it up. Apparently it is loaded with natural healing properties for respiratory and stomach ailments. Germans often give it to their children several times a week. Naturally I turned to the Sauerkraut website (which makes Frank's Sauerkraut, pictured above) for more recipes that I'd like to try. (Chocolate sauerkraut cake, anyone? Like chocolate cakes made with zucchini or beets, I imagine it adds moistness but also a bit of zing.) As Frank was the nickname of my great-grandfather, of German descent, as well as a good family friend (hi Frankman!), I rather like the brand, if not how the can looks on the pantry shelf.
Here is a blog, Down to Earth from Australia, that details how to make your own sauerkraut (thanks for that, Teresa!). I'm sure there are other instructions on-line, too, like here at Mother Earth News. Now I know why I've always wanted one of those huge stoneware crocks, still made in Ohio and available at places like Lehman's in Kidron, Ohio. [Mmm, I am seeing a road trip to Ohio's Amish country, Holmes County, sometime this spring--imagine paying shipping on a large stoneware crock? I actually remember when most hardware stores sold these crocks in all sizes as a matter of course.] And now I finally have good reason to grow and try a lot of cabbages next summer in the garden. I'll detail my procedure next fall. I'm convinced I can convert my family to the wonders of this succulent fermented food, even if I have to sneak it into their cake!
[Program Note: I will be interviewed about my book and all things pantry for the "My Beautiful Home" radio show on WAKR 1590 AM, in Akron, Ohio on Saturday, December 6 (10-11am). Andy January, of January Paint & Wallpaper, and Catherine DeLong host this program. Be sure to tune in if you are in the greater Akron listening area!]