Spring isn't that far away, but old man winter is definitely making his presence known here in the northeast U.S. and many other states. Even though it was summertime when I first tasted this sauerkraut recipe, to me this dish says "winter."
I never liked sauerkraut until I tried this recipe by my dear friend Alessandra, who died two years ago. It must be nearly thirty years since my family was driving south from Austria into Italy, through the Dolomites. She and her husband Ernesto and their daughter Mariana were staying at her friend Bona's mountainside chalet in Cortina D'Ampezzo. We had planned to drive into town and rent a place for the night, but all the hotels were booked. The kids were fidgety and I was relegated to the back seat with my then four-year old daughter, while our son Michael, then seven, claimed the front seat to avoid a second bout with car sickness. The tortuous mountain roads didn't help. So when I called her to tell Alessandra there were no vacancies anywhere and we were pushing south to the next town, I was surprised to hear her say "We found you a place to stay." Long story short, the place was Bona's place, not a hotel, and we were all invited to join them for the night in a cozy home overlooking the village as the ski lifts whizzed by overhead.
That's when Alessandra made the sauerkraut. And that's when my opinion of sauerkraut changed. It gets cooked in a pan with apples, onions, white wine, bay leaves and juniper berries and becomes a delicious amalgam of flavors during two hours in the oven.
I used juniper berries I brought back from Italy recently - freshly picked by one of my Italian cousins Maria Luisa from her country home in Emilia Romagna. I've seen berries on juniper bushes growing here in the states, but I wouldn't recommend you pick them unless you're sure they're edible. You can buy juniper berries easily enough in grocery stores or online here.
Put them in a spice grinder, or use a mortar and pestle to crush them. Once you start pounding them, the smell that exudes will remind you of gin, not surprising, since they're used to flavor that liquor.
I cook the sauerkraut for about two hours, stirring from the bottom every half hour, then I added the pork roast during the last 45 minutes or so. Below you'll see two roasts brining. I was serving one on a Saturday night for a dinner, and another on Sunday for a Superbowl party. I have to confess that I added too much salt to the brine and Saturday night's pork roast was too salty for my taste. No one complained though, but maybe they were just being kind - or were extremely hungry. To remediate for Sunday's party, I took the remaining roast out of the brine and soaked it in only water, draining it again after two hours and adding fresh water for a second two-hour soaking. It did the trick and the second time around, the roast was much improved and the saltiness had been tamed. The recipe below reflects the correct brining solution.
I also added some sausage to the sauerkraut for the second party. You can never go wrong with more pork.
printable recipe here
(This makes enough for a big crowd (up to 20 people) so cut in half if you like)
4 bags sauerkraut (2 lb. bags)
4 apples, cut into large chunks
1 large onion, minced
1 1/2 cups white wine
12 juniper berries, crunshed
3 bay leaves
Drain the sauerkraut and place in a large pan with the rest of the ingredients. Bake at 375 degrees for two hours, stirring from the bottom every half hour. This will also help to get a more even browned look, since the part near the edges seems to cook quicker.
After two hours, add the roast pork, covering with pieces of bacon. If desired, add pieces of sausage that you sautéed in a separate pan and cut into slices. Cook the roast until it still has a little spring to it, because it cooks a little more when you remove it from the oven. For the roasts in the picture (1 lb. 8 oz. each), they were cooked enough within 45 minutes, but next time would take them out a little sooner. The internal temperature should reach 140 degrees, but if you take it out at 135 or 138 degrees, it will reach that internal temperature just from resting for 15 minutes.
Brine for pork:
For one roast of about 1 1/2 pounds:
1 1/2 cups water (or enough needed to cover the roast half way)
2 T. salt
seasonings - I used fennel seeds and homemade seasoned salt made with home grown herbs - sage, rosemary, thyme and salt. (But this was another reason my pork was too salty, so I'd eliminate the ordinary salt and just use the seasoned salt next time.)
2 T. sugar
Place 1/2 cup water to boil with the salt and sugar. When the sugar has dissolved, take off the heat and add the remaining 1 cup water and the other seasonings. After the water has reached room temperature, pour into into a container with the pork. Let it soak for at least four hours, preferably overnight, flipping the roast once.