I was all set to write about sauerkraut yesterday, but then something happened. We came home to find our cleaning lady asleep in our bed. And that proved to be a very distracting thing.
Given my ethnic roots, my relationship with cabbage is so strong, I should have been incredibly focused. After all, Russians and cabbage are linked at the hip. We stuff it, we saute it a number of ways, we make soup out it.
Our Brooklyn apartment is small, so when you walk through the door you are immediately standing in the open kitchen, which becomes our living room/home office. Without moving, you can also see into the bedroom where half of our bed peeks out.
When we came back home yesterday mid-afternoon, after working at a coffee shop since the early morning, as soon as we unlocked the door we felt immediately that something was amiss. Bags of garbage were strewn about the kitchen and the entryway, the vacuum was in the middle of the living room, the furniture was off kilter, and every single light in the apartment was on. And then we saw someone’s feet on our bed. It took us a few seconds to figure out that they looked like our cleaning lady’s feet and then we looked at each other and silently mouthed in unison, “Holy crap, our cleaning lady is IN OUR BED!!!”
You know the expression you get when you’re faced with a situation you’ve never faced before and it’s at once strange, funny, and absurd at the same time? That was us I glanced at Andrew, “Do something,” I glared at him. “What??” he glared back.
We called out a few loud hellos, but there was no movement, and we got a little nervous. Was she okay? Was she conscious? Was she… dead?
But as soon as the door shut behind us, she must have woken up, because we saw her stirring. We gave her a few seconds to get up and compose herself. She seemed disoriented and confused and never offered us any explanation. Muttering something about changing the sheets, she headed back into the bedroom.
We too were somewhat thrown off and left to a nearby café to give her time to finish. When we sat down, we looked at one another—what did just happen? On the one hand it was very comical, the juxtaposition of it all. You get home, you put your bags down, you find another person sleeping in your bed. Not napping—just out cold. Dead asleep.
On the other hand, we were worried that this was a sensitive issue and we needed to handle it properly and delicately. We wanted to give her a chance to explain—she has a tendency to call us in the evening after she comes over to tell us of what cleaning agents we need to replenish and tell us about how much Forrest hates the vacuum cleaner. [She never called.]
What truly threw us off wasn’t so much the sleeping on the job part (though that’s never a good sign) but that it was our bed rather than the couch that was the selected place of said nap. Beds, I think, are very personal. Sleeping in someone’s bed, covers or no covers, is just a very strange thing. Lines are crossed. You feel a little off. Something doesn’t quite sit right.
For the rest of the afternoon, I stared at a blank page thinking of what to tell you about sauerkraut. “It’s delicious,” I wanted to write, “and it’s good for you!” But I couldn’t get my thoughts in order; I kept thinking about our cleaning lady in our bed.
Cabbage doesn’t exactly inspire odes or ballads—it’s a pretty pedestrian, albeit delicious vegetable.
I’ve been thinking about fermentation more these days as less and less fresh produce is making its way to the greenmarket. The Kimchi Cookbook comes out out in about a month and a half – so natural lactic fermentation has been on my mind quite a bit.
The concept isn’t necessarily a sexy one unless you’re a chemistry nerd like me. When acidity of the food rises, due to lactic acid fermenting organisms, many other pathogenic microorganisms are destroyed in the process. Which means that if you lived in an agrarian society with limited to no means of refrigeration, fermentation was an incredible tool at your disposal to make sure that you get some vegetables and flavor during the months of no harvest.
Some of you asked me what makes sauerkraut Russian, based on a picture I posted and mislabeled. I added the term Russian because that’s what I grew up with, but I can’t find anything in particular that makes it specifically Russian.
From my basic online and other research, sauerkraut is sauerkraut—and is pretty much the same throughout Europe. I asked Luisa, who knows her German food, if she knew any distinguishing traits between German and non-German sauerkrauts, and she mentioned that in Germany there are two different kinds of sauerkraut: cooked and fresh. The latter is the crunchy version that I imagine tastes pretty similar to what I grew up with eating in Russia. I did note two (cosmetic) differences: carrots and sugar. I don’t know if the German version uses carrots—but every Russian version I’ve ever eaten, came with shredded carrots. In a handful of recipes that I saw on the web, the German versions didn’t mention any addition of sugar—whereas the Russian versions I’m familiar with use a small amount to balance out the salty flavor.
But the gist is simple—shredded cabbage (and carrots) are tossed together with some salt and sugar, and are allowed to ferment for a few days. That’s it. No fancy gadgets. No complicated processes. Unlike, say, the aftermath of finding your cleaning lady in your bed—sauerkraut is dead simple.
The yields and jars indicated below are guidelines. Sometimes the cabbage will give off a lot more juice and shrink considerably, other times, it shrinks somewhat but not much. I don’t recommend using Savoy or Napa cabbages for this – while the fermentation will be the same, the texture and crunch will be very different from regular, green cabbage. In Russia, that’s what we were working with, and if you go to any Russian deli, you will see the Russian sauerkraut made only with regular cabbage. Often, Russians will add a handful of cranberries or a grated apple to their sauerkraut in the beginning—in my own family the cranberries (or in Russia we used lingonberries) were very popular. I prefer the minimalist version myself—and this is the version I give you below. Of course, please feel free to modify this according to your taste.
Sauerkraut is present at every Russian gathering and sit down dinner, along with other delicious zakuski (bites). The closest thing I can compare it to is banchan in Korean cuisine: where you have a series of small plates like kimchi to accompany the main meal. Sometimes, my grandmother dresses up her sauerkraut with a spoonful of unrefined sunflower oil, but most often we serve it as is in a nice bowl with a large spoon. And in the dead of winter, we make this cabbage soup swapping out half of the fresh cabbage with homemade sauerkraut. The end result is a deep, flavorful, brothy soup that is unlike any other.
1 head green cabbage (about 4 1/2 pounds), shredded (about 14 cups), with 1 large cabbage leaf reserved
4 large carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
3 tablespoons (25 grams) kosher salt
1 teaspoon (4 grams) granulated sugar
1. In a large bowl, combine the cabbage with the carrots. Add the salt and sugar and toss to combine thoroughly, almost massaging the salt and sugar into the vegetables. Make sure the seasonings are evenly distributed. Let stand 1 hour.
2. Transfer the vegetables and the accumulated juices to 2-gallon jar with a wide mouth or a nonreactive container. Cover the vegetables with the reserved cabbage leaf. You may need to trim the leaf and discard the thicker, less flexible part. Place a small saucer on top of the leaf and place a can of beans (or a can filled with water; something with a weight). The cabbage should be completely submerged in the liquid. If it is not, add just enough water so that it is.
3. Place a double layer of clean, wet cheesecloth over the jar (with the weight on top) and secure it with a rubber band. Transfer the jar to a well-ventilated area around 65oF for 4 days. Every day, during those 4 days, remove and rinse out the cheesecloth, clean any scum that might form on the cabbage leaf. You might see some bubbles and what looks to be like light foam, wipe that off as well. Using a wooden skewer (a chopstick is perfect), pierce the sauerkraut in a few places to release the gases. Return the leaf, saucer, weight, and the cheesecloth over the jar and secure with a rubber band once more. Store, without disturbing, for an additional 6 at 65F or somewhere slightly cooler (a basement or a garage, if you have it. Transfer the cabbage to clean jars and refrigerate for up to 3 months.
Makes 2 quarts.