Hog-killin' time

Cold weather brings pork and sauerkraut to the table

When the days have grown short and the weather stays cold, people used to say, "It's hog-killin' time." Before we had packing plants and supermarkets, farm families depended on their fields and flocks for sustenance, and the tedious process of whole hog butchering usually took place in cold weather. Breaking down a 200 to 300-pound hog carcass was hard and time-consuming work. In the days before refrigeration, folks relied on arctic cold blasts to keep meat from spoiling. In the Appalachians, this usually took place between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and in the Deep South, between Christmastime and February.  

Hog killing was a communal ritual that would move from farm to farm with everybody participating. Some of the pork would be preserved by salting and smoking so that it could be enjoyed in the forthcoming spring and summer. The fat was trimmed and rendered into lard in an iron kettle over an open fire. The organ meat and scraps were made into sausage. But some pork was always set aside to be consumed fresh and would grace the dinner tables over the Christmas and New Year's holidays, often accompanied by sauerkraut.

For people of German heritage, a dinner of pork and sauerkraut was the traditional way to welcome in the New Year. The pairing was thought to impart good luck and prosperity. Even today, in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, churches and fire stations host pork and sauerkraut dinners on New Year's Day for those who don't want to cook. Tart and lean sauerkraut is the perfect accompaniment for rich and fatty pork. The preferred season to make sauerkraut is fall, when shortened days and cool temperatures produce cabbages with sweet, densely packed leaves. Cabbage takes 6 to 8 weeks to ferment into sauerkraut, and would have been ready to eat by year's end. 

When I was a child, my memories of having my German relatives over for dinner were far from fond. They smoked and drank too much and talked much too loudly (and often in German so I couldn't understand). Our typical Sunday roast consisted of pork and sauerkraut. I had a strong aversion to both sauerkraut and fatty meat, and to make matters worse, my Grandmother Irene would always bring her signature shredded vegetable jello salad topped with a dollop of Miracle Whip. It was truly horrid. She was easily offended and I was always reminded to be on my best behavior around her. The rule in my house was that I had to try a bite of everything and Grandmother Irene always watched me with an eagle's eye to make sure I complied. I could secretly pass my fatty pork under the table to Max, the family dachshund, but Max hated sauerkraut and Grandmother Irene's jello salad as much as I did, so I had no recourse but to force down a bite of each. 

My parents always told me that pork and sauerkraut were supposed to bring good luck in the New Year. As my palate matured, I grew to appreciate roast pork and sauerkraut (especially homemade kraut, not the limp, lifeless kind that comes out of a can), and, as my readers know, I'm now a big advocate of fermented foods. Tradition and rituals aside, it just makes sense to me to start off the New Year with the probiotic and immune-boosting benefits of sauerkraut. 

For the recipe that follows, unless you've made your own, be sure to look for sauerkraut that is sold in the refrigerated section of your grocery store. 

Glatz Family's Pork and Sauerkraut 

Serves 4 to 6

Though this is usually served with mashed potatoes, my family served it with boiled red potatoes.

Ingredients

One 4-pound boneless pork shoulder roast, trimmed of excess fat

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons high-heat oil, such as grapeseed

1 yellow onion, thinly sliced

3 Gala apples, peeled, cored and quartered

1/2 cup white wine, such as a German Riesling

2 pounds sauerkraut, squeezed dry

2 sprigs of fresh thyme, tied into a bundle with string

1 teaspoon caraway seeds

¾ cup homemade or low-sodium chicken stock

¾ cup apple cider 

Preparation

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Remove the pork from the refrigerator one hour before cooking. Dry with paper towels and season generously with salt and pepper.

In a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven large enough to hold the roast, warm the oil over medium-high heat on the stovetop. Add the pork and sear on all sides until well browned, about 10-15 minutes. Remove and transfer to a plate.

Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the apples and sauté an additional 10 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a bowl.

Pour off the excess fat and oil and add the wine to deglaze the pan, stirring with a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits.

Add the sauerkraut to the bottom of the pan. Tuck in the thyme bundle. Sprinkle with the caraway seeds.

Nestle the pork on top and surround with the onion and apple mixture. Pour in the stock and cider. Cover tightly and place in the oven. Periodically stir the sauerkraut mixture and turn the pork. If necessary, add a little liquid to keep the sauerkraut from scorching on the bottom of the pan. Continue to cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center reads at least 145° F, anywhere from 2-3 hours. The pork should be fork-tender and shred easily.

Remove the pot from the oven, transfer pork to a carving board, and allow to rest for about 10-15 minutes. Cut crosswise into slices about 1/2-inch thick. Discard the thyme bundle and place the sauerkraut on a large platter, top with the pork and surround with the apple slices. Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes.

Peter Glatz wishes everyone a happy and healthy New Year. Make a resolution to eat more fresh and fermented vegetables and to avoid processed foods.