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Sauerkraut roots is in ancient China

The onset of fall brings with it the flavors of Oktoberfest – bratwurst, knockwurst, German beer, and of course, sauerkraut. This last comestible is so ubiquitous that one would suppose the Germans invented it. One would be wrong.

Sauerkraut actually has its roots in ancient China, where workers on the Great Wall were bring fed cabbage fermented in rice wine. For quite some time, this was their own little secret; it was easy to prepare, stored well, and was loaded with vitamins. When Genghis Khan raided the country in the 13th century, he brought sauerkraut back to Europe, where it was readily embraced by various cultures. The Germans and the French took to the stuff immediately, substituting a dry cure with salt for the wine fermentation. Likewise, the Dutch discovered that barrels of sauerkraut kept well at sea, and, since it was loaded with Vitamin C, would also see off the dreaded scurvy.

When Dutch and German settlers came to these shores, they brought their beloved sauerkraut recipes with them. A tradition grew up that each family would put about 300 heads of cabbage into barrels, salt them down liberally, and store them for consumption over the winter.

The Amish of Pennsylvania particularly revere the vegetable, and have a long-standing New Year’s observance, where pork and sauerkraut hold center stage. It’s also a popular ingredient in several Delicatessen sandwiches, particularly the Reuben, where it’s featured with Swiss cheese, corned beef and dressing, piled high on rye bread.

These days, sauerkraut can be found in any supermarket, generally in bags or jars. Nutritionally, it’s a powerhouse, with a 27-calorie cup offering four grams of fiber, 35 percent of Vitaman C requirements, 21 percent of Vitamin K, and 12 percent of iron. It also contains far more lactobacillus than yogurt, with huge digestive impacts. It may help with ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome, and has even been credited with preventing eczema.

You may notice that I’ve avoided the subject of canned sauerkraut, and with good reason. It’s been pasteurized, which kills off pretty much all the beneficial bacteria. If you must buy it in the store, stick to the stuff in the bags or jars – or, you could just make your own at home. A couple of heads of cabbage, some kosher salt and a crock, and you’re all set.

POLISH CASSEROLE

4 cups uncooked penne pasta

1-1/2 pounds smoked Polish sausage or kielbasa, cut into 1/2-inch slices

2 cans (10-3/4 ounces each) condensed cream of mushroom soup, undiluted

1 jar (16 ounces) sauerkraut, rinsed and well drained

3 cups shredded Swiss cheese, divided

1-1/3 cups 2 percent milk

4 green onions, chopped

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

4 garlic cloves, minced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Cook pasta according to package directions; drain and transfer to a large bowl. Stir in sausage, soup, sauerkraut, two cups cheese, milk, onions, mustard and garlic.

Spoon into two greased 8-in. square baking dishes; sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake, uncovered, until golden brown and bubbly, 45-50 minutes.

Freeze option: Cover and freeze unbaked casserole up to 3 months. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight. Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before baking. Preheat oven to 350°. Bake, uncovered, until golden brown and bubbly, 50-55 minutes. Makes 12 servings.

Recipe adapted from tasteofhome.com.