A few days ago I wrote about sauerkraut and how it was a staple of meals at my mother's table. She always made it in a stew pot with spare ribs, so that the smoky flavour blended into the sauerkraut and added some tang to the meal. It was a traditional Nova Scotian meal that "grew on you". I don't think it was any child's favourite, but we seemed to grow into our appreciation of it, until long after we had left home, we were happy to see it on the menu on any visit back.
I'm years away from that meal, both in space, since I'm in Japan now, and in diet, because I don't now eat meat. But I do remember the goodness of the sauerkraut and mashed potatoes, which might have been my favourite part of the meal anyway. We always gilded the mashed potatoes, made fluffy and dry in our family, with a small pat of good butter. Melting on top of the mound of potatoes, with a good share of pepper sifted on, and paired with the tangy 'kraut, it made satisfying eating.
Since I hadn't eaten sauerkraut in a few years, I decided it was a taste long overdue. And felitiously I discovered a recipe for home-made sauerkraut in the Wild Fermentation book I got recently. If any of you in Japan want it, it's available from Amazon.co.jp. I recommend this book if you are at all interested in wonderful alchemy of fermentation. You can make everything from idlis to soy yogurt to sauerkraut with the pointers that Sandor Elix Katz has in it. It's lots of fun to experiment and you may think you've hit culinary gold when you see how easy it is to make many of these recipes.
When I read that sauerkraut needed nothing more than cabbage and salt, and a jar to make it in, I thought that it would be the perfect food to make here in Japan. Sauerkraut can sometimes be obtained canned through some of the imported food providers, but it's not that cheap, and it's shipped a long way, so why add to the planet's carbon and pay all that money when it's so easy to make?
In order to try out my first batch of sauerkraut, I went shopping at the farmers market and bought a likely-looking new cabbage. The regular kind, not the milder "curly" one, as I thought that would give the best flavour. I got it for a mere 100 yen from the table of one of my regular farmers.
I peeled off a few of the outer leaves and then shredded one whole small cabbage with my chef's knife. Not that hard. As I went I lightly salted the layers of cabbage in a bowl with organic sea salt. I think any salt will work and hear that rock salt is sometimes used by the professional makers who seal the kraut up into barrels. I continued shredding until the cabbage was all used up and then used my clean hands to mix the salt and cabbage well.
What to put it in? Enter the large glass mason jars with hinged lids that I was using for storage. I got a few at the Hyakku-en shop a while back for keeping things like flour and rice in. They were each 100 yen, or less than 1 American, and now Canadian, dollar. Big and sturdy, 1 and 1/2 quart size. So into my glorious glass jar I packed the kraut, by hand, pushing it well down into the jar, actually tamping it down, and then weighted the whole thing down with a lid with a cup of water on top. I used a small plastic lid and a disposable cup filled with water, which fit inside the mouth of the jar and under the lid, which I left open overnight, covered with a tea towel.
The next day I checked the level of the water that had been released from the cabbage and topped it up with filtered water (plain water will work too) and re-weighted it. The level of the water was enough to cover the cabbage. I snapped the lid closed, covered it with a tea towel and waited.
When I checked the next day, the water level had gone down, absorbed by somewhat dry cabbage. I topped it up, and from then on checked once in awhile to make sure the sauerkraut was below the level of the liquid. Occasionally, curious, I opened the lid and smelled or tasted a tiny bit. One week and two days later I had edible and very tasty sauerkraut, which I wasted no time in cooking up and eating with a nice bowl of mashed potatoes, improved by a bit of pepper and a small drizzle of olive oil. The sauerkraut was just a tiny bit crunchy. It wasn't Tancook sauerkraut but it was good, and darn comforting to boot.
If you are like me, in Japan or anywhere where sauerkraut may be scarce, try whipping up a batch. It's still warm in Japan now, so the sauerkraut won't take that long to develop. Expect a longer waiting time if you're in a cooler place. But it's easy, and once you put it up in the jar, there's not much to be done but to wait and enjoy.
Homemade Sauerkraut (about 4-6 cups)
Remove the outer tough or discoloured leaves from a firm head of cabbage.
Quarter the head and shred it into the size you like, removing the core if you like.
As you put the cabbage into a big bowl sprinkle salt on the layers (about 2-3 Tb in all).
Use clean hands to mix the salt and cabbage well and pack it into a large non-metal jar.
Tamp it down with your hands or a spoon and add a weight.
Cover the jar with a tea towel to keep out insects and dirt. You can tuck it around and under the jar and put it on a shelf.
The next day check the liquid level and add water as needed to cover the cabbage. Shut the lid.
Check the next day and do the same. From then on there should be enough liquid.
Watch the sauerkraut and taste and smell it until it's developed the sour smell and flavour you like. (Make sure the cabbage remains submerged to prevent discolouration and mold.)