A finicky guy's exploits in finding gustatory (and other) satisfaction in his kitchen, his neighborhood, and beyond.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Now I'm Cooking! — Sausage & Sauerkraut 1-Dish Meal

Today I'm going to expose a limitation of counter-top convection ovens as well as a rare example of my own misjudgment.

That's irony, friends; I am always trying out things in my cooking that don't go the way I envisioned.  In coming up with solutions — trying to salvage the mess in that pot — I have learned a lot about cooking, challenged my creativity, ended up doing seemingly crazy things that actually worked, and had a few good laughs as I fed unsalvagable messes to the dogs.  (Or to the garbage, when even the dogs wouldn't touch my results — those Chihuahuas have highly developed palates.)  I encourage all cooks to welcome their mistakes as windows into the unexpected.

Here, Willy -- Daddy messed up in the kitchen. . . .

It was another chilly day on Sunday, calling for hearty, warming meals.  Because I'd ordered sauerkraut in our last delivery from the Amish and had bought a pound of garlicky pork sausage from the meat counter at Whole Foods the day before, I thought about re-creating an easy, one-dish meal using similar ingredients I'd first thrown together in the 90s, and hadn't made in a long time.  I actually hadn't made it since we've been using Connie (the convection oven) exclusively for baking, so I was eager to see how she handled the task.

The dish calls for sauerkraut, sausage, apples, and an assortment of root vegetables, so I went down to our root cellar to take a look.  (That's NY-talk for "I went out onto the balcony and took a look in the big plastic box in which I stuck a styrofoam box to keep veggies cool."  If any of you other urban cooks want to try this out, just be sure that your box is squirrel-proof!)  I came up with this beautiful assortment of ingredients:

Potatoes (2 kinds), sweet potatoes, carrots, apples, and a tiny turnip (can you find it?) from the root "cellar"

I brought these inside and chopped them into 3/4-inch chunks.  (This specificity is hilariously misleading, as I actually just chopped them up.)  Then I assembled my jar of sauerkraut and the sausages.  For their photo shoot.  Otherwise, they could have just continued to sit there on the counter.

These ingredients really appeal to my German side
As I was contemplating how to continue with this particular iteration of this dish, I developed a hankering after caraway.  Either that or juniper berries, but, seeing as I had neither in my pantry, I settled on caraway, figuring there was a better chance at finding it easily.  So I did that old-fashioned thing, going over to the neighbors with a little bowl and asking for a teaspoon of caraway.   In case you were wondering, the neighbors are already inured to our eccentricities.  At least it wasn't Cathy going over there with an empty bowl.

Imagine opening your door to this glamorous dame asking for spices

At the first apartment, I struck out, and felt a little awkward besides, as my neighbor, after apologizing 3 times for the apparently unforgivable sin of not having caraway on hand, burst into tears, explaining that she was sick of Christmas because of what had happened over the holidays.  (Frustratingly, she never revealed what exactly had happened.  Maybe I'll send Cathy over later to pry out the details woman-to-woman.)

Whew — remind me never to shop THERE again!  So I moved on to the only other person on our floor — a single man with a "roommate" — who might have some caraway tucked away.   (Is it fair for me to have assumed the other gay man on our floor would have a well-stocked spice rack?  I say, yes, given the aromas I've smelled coming from his apartment.  There, I've rationalized my stereotyping.)

This time I was in luck!  My next-door neighbor disappeared for a couple of minutes to check and came back with a can of caraway seeds.

From 1967.  This is not a stock photo of an antique spice can, Readers; it's the ACTUAL can he handed to me, saying, "These might be a little past their prime."

Vintage Caraway

Yeah, about 40 years past their prime.  I dumped a little of the seed into my palm at his urging to see if it had any smell.  Not only did it not smell, but it disintegrated as I poured it into what looked alarmingly like roach poop.  (Don't ask me how I know so much about roach poop.)

Anyway, I thanked my neighbor and brought the can back home — to photograph for the blog, not to use.  Even Willy at his most ravenous would've turned up his nose at Sauerkraut & Roach Poop Casserole.  Looking through my own spice cabinet, which skews towards Indian flavorings, I came across my rarely used small black cumin seeds,  a smokier variety that tastes nothing like normal cumin or caraway, for that matter, but it at least looks a little like caraway.  I decided to throw in a pinch of these.  (By this time, I could have easily gone out to the grocery store across the street for caraway seeds, but it was cold out there, and I'm a wimp in the winter.)

Small Black Cumin Seeds (Kala Jeera)

Enough background!  Now let me show you how I assembled the dish.  First, I cut up the pound of sausage into bite-sized pieces.  I used my kitchen shears for this, which seemed more exciting than a knife, for some reason.  (Bonus time-saving hint: Easiest way to chop up a few tablespoons of fresh herb?  Put it in a small bowl and hack away with the kitchen shears.  Fun!)  I put these pieces into a big, oven-proof bowl.

I added to the bowl the chopped up apples, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, and turnip, then strewed some leaves of sage around to make the picture prettier.  I was not expecting that these leaves would enhance the flavor much, since I'd found them earlier in the very back of my freezer in a container marked CSA sage, July 2007.  But they ARE pretty.  You can use some fresher sage, if you have it.  (Why was I so herb-challenged when putting this dish together?)

Next I dumped in the sauerkraut and a big dollop of German-style deli mustard, then extruded (nasty-sounding word, that) 6 cloves of garlic through a press on top of it all.

Then I mixed it well.

OK, here's where my plans begin to go temporarily awry.  I stuck the big blue bowl into the convection oven and immediately noticed that it barely fit, leaving no space around the perimeter to permit the air to circulate, and thus, totally defeating the functionality of a convection oven.   I decided to see what would happen in this convection cooking situation in which no convection was possible.  (I have to admit the thought of a potential failure to blog about piqued my excitement and inspired me to continue down an ill-advised path.)  I dialed Connie's temperature up to 350 degrees and set her timer for an initial trial baking period of 20 minutes.

Twenty minutes later, I had a mostly cool-to-the-touch bowl of food with a slightly dried-out layer on top, because my big blue bowl put the ingredients right under the heat source and did not permit the heated air produced to be circulated further.  Not being ready to admit failure (or a limitation on the part of my beloved Connie), I put a big glass lid on top of the blue bowl (from a different baking dish, but it fit perfectly) to protect my ingredients from drying out.

Unfortunately, it also protected them from cooking.  I seem to have devised a heat-proof container within my oven.  Well, Readers, if you ever find yourself trapped in a convection oven, you'll know how to keep yourself safe until help arrives.  But my dinner was not any further along towards serving, and a certain sewist in the living room was beginning to grumble about his hunger levels.  Believe me, you do not want to raise the grumpiness level of anyone with a large collection of scissors and rotary cutters.

At this point, I had to concede that Connie was just not the right tool for this baking job.  I turned her off and ladled the contents of the blue bowl into a big pot, which I put onto a burner on my gas stovetop.  I brought the pot to a simmer and let it cook until all the root vegetables were soft.  (I wasn't timing, but it was probably somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes.  Just so you know, the carrots were a little firmer than some people like when I called dinnertime.  Remember, I was trying to get food as quickly as possible in to my grumpy sewist.)

A little grating of a stinky French cheese called Tete de Moine finished off the dish.  (Don't be impressed that I knew exactly what variety of cheese my dish needed.  I just grab what I find in the cheese-ends basket at Whole Foods.  If I'd thought about it beforehand, I probably would have decided on Emmenthaler or some other Swiss cheese.)

Our beer sommelier, Freddy, suggested serving this hearty dish with a nice, dark ale made by Belgian monks.  His recommendations are sometimes a little on the whimsical side, but he can always be trusted to come up with an off-beat choice that complements the meal nicely.

Okay, Readers, it's time for you to pony up with your own stories of how you have had to switch gears in the middle of preparing a dish in order to avert culinary disaster.  Full disclosure, please — don't spare us any juicy details.


  1. I have some spice cans that old too, from my mother. I don't use them, but I like to see them there. Kind of comforting in a nostalgic way.

    The one culinary disaster (yes, I've had only one! hah) that comes to mind could not have been saved by switching gears. Years ago, I made an apple spice cake in the middle of the night. I was bleary-eyed (or hungover), and used the sugar measurement for baking soda. It baked beautifully and smelled delicious. We were all eager to try it. Needless to say it, one bite and into the trash it went. The dogs couldn't be persuaded either. (And don't you just love how they turn their whole face away and mutter under their breath, "Even I, who samples kitty poop from time to time, wouldn't eat that!") My sister still reminds me of the Baking Soda Cake on a regular basis.

  2. Wait! You need to finish the story! How did it turn out? I'm assuming you saved it and it was great. Sounds delicious. Sounds like something else I'd like to copy, though maybe just a single serving for me (my husband's not really a sauerkraut & sausage guy, and the kids.... eh, maybe). I'll have to think & come back later with a disaster story. Oh, I've had plenty, and mine probably won't have a happy ending.

  3. Hi Michael,
    This is a great cooking story. Not really a disaster as all you had to do was give up on using Connie, making dinner late and Michael grumpy. How did it taste? Was Freddy correct about the dark ale?

    Debbie's Baking Soda Cake brought back fond memories of my deceased mother-in-law Vivian. Before she was married, Vivian was a pastry chef... no kidding she ran her own bakery in Bridgewater Nova Scotia. Her breads, buns, cookies, cakes and pies were second to none. Dessert was always big at her house even for breakfast. Everything was made from scratch. She used to make this awesome gingerbread cake that would be baking while we were eating dinner. She served it with hot caramel sauce and vanilla icecream it was heaven in a bowl. She also made lemon meringue pie, the filling was made with fresh lemons. Once she made this pie and forgot to put sugar in the filling. Pucker up...hioly smokes was it sour! She promptly put the sugar bowl on the table. In the 15 years I knew her that was the only dish she ever flopped.

  4. Poor Connie! To have her failures documented on the web-haha. It sounds like you saved the meal, though. I think my family would have liked this, but I probably would have made a nice Beer Bread to go with it.

    I have had my failures, also. My brother still brings up my infamous Pepper Meatloaf. I added a 1/4 cup instead of a 1/4 tsp of pepper. In my defense, I was 12 and trying to help my mother by having dinner ready when she came home from work. It seemed like the meatloaf mix was darker than hers, but it smelled like hers and looked good coming out of the oven. And yes, it was one of those meals that even the dogs wouldn't eat!

  5. I'm starting to remember some now. There was the infamous Honey Mustard Tofu incident - unsalvageable. There was also the Chicken and Rice soup that turned into a nearly solid, grainy gelatinous mass. And then there was the time I nearly put baking soda into a batter instead of baking powder. I'm having a good chuckle remembering.

  6. I am loving the "disaster" stories! Thanks, everyone who wrote in with one.

    It seems that I did not sufficiently tie up the loose ends of my story. Yes, the dish turned out delicious. It was even better upon reheating for the next day's dinner, and most delectable of all the third day, mixed with leftover basmati rice. I think the grain helped to absorb some of the excessive saltiness from the sausage & sauerkraut. (You know it was salty if I found it excessive!)

    Oh, the mail just arrived....with a package from Debbie!!!!!! Gotta run.....

  7. Sounds tasty, I think I might have gone for some star anise as a substitute myself, since you say you're up on the Indian spices.

    I've has so many failures with 100% whole wheat bread, it never rises well. Now I never go more than half with whole wheat, less if I use ten percent barley flour which adds a lovely flavor to most breads.

    A more successful failure was the time I was making french bread, and had no fats in the house but peanut oil. Made a beautiful loaf that tasted slightly of peanuts, it was good; but I didn't have the adventuresome spirit to use it for garlic bread, which is what I had originally planned.

  8. I've never been able to get bread made with flour other than white, white/rye or white/wheat to rise. Barley flour is a complete and utter disaster, no matter how closely I follow the directions. But the meal I hear about all the time? The turkey pot pie I made on the 5th night after Thanksgiving, in 1992. Yes, that's right, EIGHTEEN years ago. It was good, but because I never cook everything in one pot, no one except my husband would touch it. To this day, I marvel at the fact that he was able to keep the then-small children from locking me out in the snow with my turkey pot pie, and leaving me to freeze to death.

  9. I just love reading about your culinary adventures!

    My biggest cooking disaster was trying to make Crockpot Yogurt (recipe:http://crockpot365.blogspot.com/2008/10/you-can-make-yogurt-in-your-crockpot.html) I've made it four different times and NEVER had it turn out right. Ever. After attempt #4, I decided to chuck the whole idea and just BUY yogurt. A small portion of the last batch of "homemade yogurt" (ie: white, creamy goo) ended up getting thrown in the ice cream maker for froyo. Even that didn't work out so well... blargh.

    If you need another idea for saurkraut (which freezes really well, btw), you can fry up some spicy sausage, layer it with the saurkraut and top with leftover mashed potatoes. Throw it in the oven until it's browned. Best comfort food ever!

  10. @Treadle: Your Peanut-y french bread "failure" sounds heavenly! I'd love to try a slice. Hmmmmm, star anise would've been an interesting addition to my kraut dish.

    @Marjie: there's more to your potpie story than you're telling, isn't there? I want to know the WHOLE truth! I just can't imagine anyone not being ecstatic about a homemade potpie.

    @Darci: So the crockpot method does not work for yogurt, huh? I used to have a little yogurt maker, with 6 lidded glass jars and a heating unit, that worked pretty infallibly. With the glorious Amish yogurt we can get from our raw-milk club, I have no more reason to make yogurt myself, although it's a pretty satisfying transformation to effect.

    I'm gonna try your idea for sauerkraut w/leftover mashed potatoes, which are one of my favorite foods.

  11. Micheal: That little yogurt maker sounds perfect! I'll have to look into getting one. Thanks for the tip!

    Enjoy that sauerkraut bake. It's totally yummy.