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First of all, I super hate typing the word sauerkraut. As such, I will be, henceforth, referring to this dish by its shortened and more easily typed moniker, kraut.
Now that we have have that small piece of unpleasantness behind us, let’s talk kraut. The hometown of my adolescence (Fredericksburg, TX) was very, very German. Being the town in which I cut my culinary teeth, I have seen some kraut. Buckets on buckets of kraut. The smell of cracking open a fresh bucket after a long night gigging with the old band will forever haunt my olfactory.
As you can imagine, this overexposure to fermented cabbage left me feeling a little raw. For years, I only viewed kraut as a garbage side, fit only for hotdogs at Costco. I was moving on to bigger, and better things, and my culinary prowess couldn’t be bothered with some stinky old cabbage.
But then, the “craft movement” happened. Somehow, the hipsters of the world convinced the upper middle class that their stinky old cabbage was worth something. When you see a jar of stuff sporting a smart label and a ten dollar price tag at Whole Foods, you’re naturally drawn to the assumption that there’s quality in that jar. There is a craft version of every condiment and side dish imaginable, and I needed to see what all the fuss was about.
Circle back to kraut. While I was shopping with my infant son at the local farmers market (don’t you dare judge me) as mentioned in my kimchi post, I thought back to all those years of smelling and serving that garbage kraut from the big green buckets. It really got me thinking; there has to be a reason that people are still eating this crap. Kraut could not have survived as a food if the only version anyone has ever eaten came from the big green bucket. This dish has a story to tell, and I fully intended to find it.
I started with the things that I enjoy about sauerkraut (I tried. Still terrible to type). The crunchy texture is a genuine addition to a sausage on a bun. The sharp acidity can bring a delightful brightness to an otherwise heavy and fatty German dinner. Also, reuben sandwiches are dope as hell, and it wouldn’t be a reuben without kraut. These were reasons enough for me to dig a little deeper.
I sat down to develop the recipe, and I tried to imagine components that would amplify the good parts of kraut, whilst simultaneously suppressing the things that I found awful. For the crunch, I opted for a thicker leaved napa cabbage, with sliced fennel bulb mixed in. The vague sweetness of the cabbage and the celery-like crunch of fresh fennel paired perfectly with the lemon rind, which led to supplement the brighter notes that I found so favorable. The dill was added because dill is awesome, and it also lends itself well to fermenting due to its natural antimicrobial nature. At this point, it seemed like I had avoided the green bucket swill and created something pretty delicious.
As far as execution is concerned, this recipe is insanely easy. I put the fennel bulb and cabbage in a bowl, salted the crap out of it, and left it out for a while. After a few hours, you just stuff everything into a jar, and let it sit for a couple of days. That’s it. The results of such an insanely simple process were absolutely baffling. The addition of carroway and dried fennel seeds accentuated the bright tones of the fresh fennel bulbs. The cabbage ended up squeaky and palatable, but still surprisingly crunchy. I really shocked myself with this one. This kraut ended up so good it made me want to invite people to my house for some grilled brats, all because I wanted to show off my cool jar of homemade kraut.
I’m linking to a printable recipe. I strongly encourage you to try this out for yourself. Don’t like fennel? Don’t add it. Do you not have lemon handy? That’s ok too. As long as you have some cabbage, some salt, and a mason jar, you can make yourself a mind-blowing side treat.