Halloween has always been one of my very favorite holidays. Our Halloween cards go out right after Labor Day. A few weeks later, the Halloween tree, lit in orange and purple, is decorated.
With the coming of cooler weather, we begin to think of the stews and sour cream-based dishes of Eastern Europe. On Sept. 26, 1988, I made Transylvanian Baked Sauerkraut for the first time. The date is written in pencil alongside the recipe in “The Hungarian Cookbook” by Susan Derecskey, published in 1972. “Very good!” I exclaimed more than 31 years ago.
I’ve made Transylvanian Baked Sauerkraut during Halloween season almost every year since then. Usually, if time allows, I make it on Halloween day. Like a lot of “old country” cooking, it takes some time, but if you’re a sauerkraut lover like we are, it’s worth all the labor.
Hungarians and Romanians are as devoted to sauerkraut as Germans are, and maybe even more so. In her recipe headnote, Derecskey writes, “Sauerkraut is one of the pitiful orphans of American cooking: a whole generation of kids knows it only as something to put on hot dogs at the beach. What a loss! This is one of the world’s most versatile delicacies.”
I’ve been eating sauerkraut in various ways since childhood. Making it is a family tradition. I still own the double-bladed chopper my maternal grandmother used to cut up the cabbage. After the kraut had fermented properly, my treat was the cabbage stalk, always embedded exactly in the center of the jar.
This recipe is also a celebration of pork. It calls for three kinds. And garlic and paprika are essential ingredients commonly used in Eastern European kitchens. I often say that a recipe “speaks” to me. Incorporating some of my favorite flavors, this one certainly does.
I’ve adapted the original recipe a bit, including reducing some of the fat content and modifying some of the steps. Transylvanian Baked Sauerkraut is a great one-dish meal.
To make it, first fry about one-quarter pound of bacon. Set the meat aside and keep the fat. A smoky bacon works perfectly with sauerkraut. I use bacon from Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville. I purchase it at Boone Street Market in Jonesborough.
In a couple of tablespoons of the bacon fat, sauté one-half cup chopped onion until soft. With a slotted spoon, remove the onion. Then add a pound of ground pork to the skillet and brown it thoroughly. When I first started making this dish, I had to go to a butcher shop to get the ground pork, but now it’s much more readily available.
Return the sautéed onions to the skillet and stir in a large clove of garlic, finely chopped, along with 1 teaspoon of salt, 2 teaspoons or more of Hungarian paprika, and freshly ground black pepper to taste. It’s important to find real Hungarian paprika. Don’t buy the brown stuff that comes from who knows where. Get the kind from Hungary, which should be deep orange-red. A brand I find here locally is Pride of Szeged. Cover the skillet and simmer for about 10 minutes.
While that’s simmering, cut one-half pound of smoked sausage into quarter-inch slices and brown them on both sides in another skillet. I love Conecuh sausage, which has been made in Evergreen, Alabama, since 1947. When the sausage is done, break up the bacon into small pieces and stir together with the sausage. Set aside.
Meanwhile, cook some rice. You can even do it ahead of time. For this recipe, bring one-half cup of water to a boil and stir in one-quarter cup of long-grain rice. Reduce the heat and steam for 20 minutes. Our go-to rice nowadays is Supreme, cultivated and milled in Crowley, Louisiana.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 3-quart Dutch oven. I use a Le Creuset chicken fryer that’s about 3¼ inches deep.
For this recipe, you need about two pounds of sauerkraut. Buy it in glass or plastic, not in metal cans. Squeeze the sauerkraut dry. Many recipes say to rinse the sauerkraut, but I never do that.
Spread a third of the sauerkraut on the bottom of the Dutch oven. Then add all the bacon and sausage. Top that with another third of the sauerkraut and then dot with two or three tablespoons of sour cream. Sprinkle the rice over the top and then add the ground pork mixture, along with any pan juices that have collected.
Cover with the rest of the sauerkraut. Reheat the skillet you cooked the pork in and pour a cup of water into it. Stir to loosen any browned particles and pour all that over the kraut.
Spread about a cup of sour cream evenly over the top and bake, uncovered, for 1½ hours or until the food shrinks away from the sides and the top starts to brown slightly. Remove from the oven and let the dish stand for 20 minutes.
Provide extra sour cream and Hungarian paprika for serving. Transylvanian Baked Sauerkraut reheats beautifully. Happy Halloween!
Fred Sauceman is the author of “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”