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   A Forkful of History
   Wrapped in Kraut

   By Nancy Harmon Jenkins

  Some chefs cook by instinct, unable to say why they do what they do except that it just seems right. Others cook while steadily thinking about what they are doing and the reasons why, about the relationship of flavors and textures, the history of a recipe, about a method or an ingredient.

  The first group may create great dishes, but the thinkers are much more interesting to talk to.

  Sam Hayward, the chef and an owner of Fore Street restaurant in Portland, Me., is a thinker. In his home here on a recent frigid day he was pondering the penetrating aromas and flavors of sauerkraut, that acidic combination of sweet and sour that people either love or hate.

  It is easy to understand why old-time Mainers found sauerkraut irresistible. On this particular day, when the trees here cracked with the force of the ice in their limbs, Mr. Hayward baked sauerkraut in a crock with juniper berries and rosemary and a robust portion of braised smoked bacon. The fat sweetness of the pork mingled with the crisp flavors and soft textures of the kraut to make a dish that soothed the palate and calmed the soul.

  Before refrigeration, of course, cabbage needed to be preserved through the winter: sauerkraut was the result. It is a utilitarian product, but a delectable one, too.

  "I'm fascinated with how sheer necessity came up with things that are absolutely delicious and that stay in our foodways for generations, long after the need has passed," Mr. Hayward said.

  The kraut in Mr. Hayward's kitchen came from Morse's Sauerkraut, a family-owned company in Waldoboro, Me., that has produced naturally fermented sauerkraut from locally grown cabbages since 1918. "Naturally fermented" means that the cabbage was pickled in its own brine, which is created when sliced cabbage mingles with a hefty dose of salt. Salt draws out the sweet vegetable juices, eventually producing lactic acid to further preserve the cabbage and in the process turn it into something better. Much better.

  Naturally fermented vegetables have a high amount of ascorbic acid, Mr. Hayward explained. "People in this climate did not have access to vitamin C all the time," he said. "They had to take it where they could get it. They got so they craved these things in the depths of winter."

  While he talked, he broke apart a thick slab of meaty bacon that he had braised that morning, chilling and weighting it to make it more compact. "I rubbed the meat with aromatics — black pepper, rosemary, thyme," he said. "I like to roast black peppercorns over the fire for a couple of minutes before cracking them. You get this great, nutty aroma that way."

  He threw a handful of peppercorns into a frying pan and set them over the gas ring. As soon as the peppers began to crackle, he stuck the pan under my nose. A little waft of smoke carried the penetrating aroma, almost cuminlike in its intensity.

  Mr. Hayward's kitchen is a comfortable, colorful space with cabinets painted pale green and deep teal, slate countertops and a big, wide floor-to-ceiling brick chimney that embraces a wood-fired oven tall enough to use for baking as well as grilling.

  He arranged meaty pieces over the kraut that he had mounded in an oven dish. "It's nitrate-free bacon," he said. "It comes from a butcher in North Anson who calls it uncured smoked bacon. It's definitely salted, but it lacks the sharp, almost sour flavor we associate with nitrate-cured pork products."

  The liquid and fat from the braised bacon were used to flavor the kraut. Some recipes call for sauerkraut to be thoroughly rinsed before using but Mr. Hayward does not do that. "You rinse away the flavor," he said. After he mixed in some of the braising liquid and the chilled fat, he set the kraut in the oven, then turned his attention to a little pile of small yellow-fleshed potatoes. He sautéed them in the rest of the pork fat, then finished their cooking later in the dish of kraut and bacon.

  "Sometimes I do this with beans instead," he said. "Jacob's cattle beans are great with caramelized onions and reconstituted dried mushrooms. Add some chicken stock and put them to bake right beside the kraut."

  And if you do not have chicken stock? He looked bemused, as if he were thinking, Would anyone not have chicken stock?

  "You know, there are byproducts of normal cooking that really make a huge difference. If you're roasting a chicken, for instance, and you have juices left in the pan, take that extra step and deglaze the pan. Then put the juice away, in the freezer if necessary. It can substitute for stocks in many dishes that might otherwise be diminished in intensity."

  He contemplated the finished kraut with its crisp-edged potatoes and succulent pork. "Brine-fermented foods are very friendly to wine," he said, "but the best accompaniment is good hard cider right out of the barrel. There was a time when every household around here would have had a barrel of cider bubbling away."

  He looked up, pondering another connection with past necessities. But I tucked into the sauerkraut before he could get started.

  • Recipe: Roasted Sauerkraut and Bacon

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