When my passion for good food and wine hits me hard it often takes me to Alsace. Alsace, really?
Located on France’s eastern border adjacent to Germany and Switzerland this tiny, beautiful and delicious slice of the world is not well known to most Americans. Too bad for us, since the Alsace region boasts unmatched cuisine, beauty, hospitality and, not the least, some of the world’s best wines.
Alsace has fairy-tale cities like Strasbourg, Colmar and Riquewihr – some of the most beautiful cities in France, and many areas of picturesque historic interest. If you are a photographer, its a MUST visit destination.
Medieval Alsatian villages with their narrow, cobblestone alleys hold “winstub” to discover. The traditional name for Alsace’s cozy wine bars, charming brasseries and bistros with typical checked tablecloths all serve up local dishes to neighborhood eaters. Traveling in the gorgeous countryside it’s also easy to meet proud wine producers who tend vines cultivated by their forefathers for generations.
Oh, and beer, too! Big beer lives here, like Kronenbourg and Fischer & Adelshoffen, but microbreweries are gaining a toehold. Not only good beer here, but there’s great news for those of us who love food. There’s more to pair with local brews than pretzels. For my fellow pork lovers, you’ll find thousands of different ways it’s served up along with an array of luscious fresh veggies and potatoes.
It’s home to Flammeküche or tarte flambée, the “pizza” of Alsace. Thin, crusty dough is topped with cream, onions and lardons, (coarsely chopped bacon), that’s baked in a wood-fire oven. If you’re not a bacon lover – there are many variations, including “Munster” (with Munster cheese), and “Forestière” (with mushrooms). Last visit I enjoyed a goat cheese and fig jam laden tart. Any way you eat it – its wonderful!
Are you hungry yet? How’s does this dish sound for glorious indulgence? Baked sliced potatoes layered with onions and different sliced meats, (pork, lamb or beef), marinated in Riesling, all cooked slowly in a traditional ceramic casserole. The name is Baeckeofe, and is usually served with a dry white wine like the Riesling used in its preparation.
I can’t forget to mention Chaucroute, the Alsatian casserole of cabbage, cooked in white wine with potatoes, and served with ham, smoked pork shoulder, bacon and sausages… you get the picture. It’s a foodie heaven. Amen.
For dessert, you can’t pass on the Kugelhopf, a cake made with soft yeast dough and raisins, almonds and brandy. Käsküeche, or cheese pie is their version of cheesecake made with fromage blanc, eggs and lemon. It is divine. Or try a piece of pain d’épices (gingerbread), or nougat, or even a glamorous French macaron; they come from the neighboring region of Lorraine.
Lots! Of different grapes are grown, and wines are made. But MY favorite from the region are made from the following grapes:
Pinot Blanc: An ideal aperitif, with light flavors of apples and peaches. It matches well with light poultry fare, egg-based dishes such as omelettes or quiches, and soft cheeses.
Riesling: Is considered one of the best white grape varieties in the world. The best choice to accompany traditional Alsatian dishes such as Choucroute and pork-based dishes; it’s also great with fish, shellfish, poultry, white meats and goat cheese.
Pinot Gris: A white that matches dishes with lots of rich sauces, like mushrooms, game, veal, pork and poultry. (It’s the same grape as Italy’s Pinot Grigio. But here in Alsace, it’s richer, rounder and softer – but still crisp and refreshing.)
Gewürztraminer: Is super aromatic with a bright golden yellow, it pairs beautifully with foie gras, strong cheeses such as Munster, and with any spicy dishes. (Speaking of Munster – its not the same old American Munster used to top deli sandwiches. Its oozy, gooey, lovely white cow cheese – you HAVE to try it.)
Pinot Noir: The only red grape variety authorized in Alsace. Made in both the Rose style and as a Red, its perfect for meal that featuring charcuterie, grilled meats or hearty sausage-laden salads. It’s complex and earthy with lots of deep cherry aromas and flavors.
Of course, no one should leave Alsace without a least one glass of fabulous Crémant d’Alsace. Made in the same method as Champagne, it’s a bubbly wine that is delicate, refined and fresh. A perfect pair with just about anything!
Here’s how to capture some of the flavors from Alsace. Grab a Riesling from Trimbach, one of the most famous; historic and prolific wine makers in the region. You don’t have to spring for a lot of bucks – under $30 will get you a bottle of crisp, clean, refreshing citrus flavor, with complexity and a dry finish. They are easy to find at almost any beverage store – but not at most grocery stores. (You can learn more about Riesling in the post right before this one!)
If cooking is not your thing, a shortcut dinner inspired by Alsatian flavors is sooo easy. Any of the fresh artisanal sausages that you can find at Whole Foods, Fresh Market or even your grocery store can be boiled gently in beer and then sautéed in a medium-hot skillet with a little butter. Slice and serve them up with a little sauerkraut, (from the refrigerated section), a cold beer and assorted German mustards. (Of course you can substitute a Riesling for the beer.) Your salad on the side can be made with a couple of chopped seedless cucumbers, a half of an onion that is very thinly sliced and a 1/2 cup of chopped dill. Whisk together 1/2 cup Nonfat Greek yogurt, a TB of white vinegar, 1 TB of raw sugar and a sprinkle of salt and pepper and mix the dressing with the veggies. Serve it up with your luscious bottle of Riesling. Fabulous dinner – voila!
If you’re up for cooking, make my recipe for Chaucroute. It’s not difficult, just a bit time consuming. (And, believe it or not, it’s little lighter than the traditional recipe.) It’s a lot of fun to have a group of 10 or 12 over and put the dish right in the middle of the table and let folks dig in. I have an enormous cast iron casserole that I use for cooking it, but you can use a regular roasting pan. Serve this “pot-o-goodness” up with some crisp green veggies like asparagus or green beans, accompany it with a fresh green salad and you have dinner, done!
½ Cup Sea Salt, plus more for seasoning
2 TB Raw Sugar
3 LBs Pork Ribs or Baby Back Ribs, cut into 3 pieces
6 LBs Sauerkraut (in plastic bags from the refrigerated section), drained
1/4 Cup Canola or Grapeseed Oil
4 Cups Yellow Onion, coarsely chopped
2 TB Grated or Minced Garlic
20 *Juniper Berries
3 Bay Leaves
1/2 Tsp Caraway Seeds
1 Tsp Freshly Ground Black Pepper
3 Cups Chicken Stock
1 1/2 cups Riesling
2 LBs Polish Kielbasa, sliced (I KNOW its not German)
2 LBs Smoked Sausage, sliced
2 LBs Boneless Smoked Ham, sliced into strips
5 LB Fingerling or Yukon Gold Potatoes, Cut into 2” Pieces if large
¼ Cup Chopped Parsley
Assorted German mustards, for serving (Find interesting speciality mustards at Whole Foods or Buford Highway Farmers Market)
Combine salt and sugar in a Ziploc bag. Add the pork ribs and massage well. Seal the bag and refrigerate the ribs overnight.
Preheat the oven to 300F. Rinse the sauerkraut in cold water and squeeze it dry. Set a large roasting pan over 2 burners on high heat and heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for 12 minutes or until soft and golden. Add the garlic and cook for an additional minute. Stir in the drained sauerkraut, juniper berries, bay leaves, caraway seeds, black pepper, stock and wine Bring to a boil over high heat.
Place the pork ribs into the sauerkraut and bring back to a boil over moderately high heat. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 1 1/2 hours.
Discard the bay leaves, and if you can find them, the juniper berries.
While the casserole is cooking, place the potatoes in a saucepan, cover the potatoes with cold water, add salt and bring to a boil over high heat; cook the potatoes until tender when pierced with a knife. Drain the potatoes and place them back in the pot, cover to keep warm.
To serve, pile the sauerkraut on a large heated platter and garnish with the meats. Serve the Chaucroute with the boiled potatoes and assorted mustards..
*Yes, those are the same berries used to flavor Gin. You can find them at an international market like Buford Highway. You’ll have juniper berry leftovers, use them the next time you are brining a chicken or the Thanksgiving turkey. Mmmm.
This post originally appeared in my Culinary Blog for the Urban Explorers of Atlanta, a group that hikes, eats, has fun and makes a difference.