Not surprisingly, the older I get, the more important family is to me. I'm well beyond my rebellious years, and the self-centered, booze-fueled, late-night haze of my twenties is fading fast. These days, my time is more meaningfully spent with loved ones, especially while cooking. Regrettably, my family and I are thousands of miles apart. Thankfully, I have somewhat of a surrogate one here, and they're as proud of their Latvian heritage as mine is of their French. And when they invited me over for a traditional Sunday feast, I was truly honored -- as long as I could help, of course.
I met Alvis and Karina years ago, while tending bar at Great Divide's then-brand-new tap room. They happened to be some of the first people to walk through the door. Having recently migrated from Chicago to Five Points, they were looking for a local beer spot within biking distance of their house. They instantly became some of my favorite regulars, and as the years passed, I began to consider them close friends and mentors. I've since left the brewery, and they've since started a family.
They both still enjoy a good brew, though (rightfully so, since working and raising children seems extremely exhausting), and asked that I bring one to pair with a dinner of sauerkraut and beer-braised pork shoulder.
It was a bit early on a Sunday morning to go beer shopping, but luckily, Argonaut was open. Even better, the store had a couple of different bocks from Fort Collins Brewing on the shelf, which was precisely the style I had in mind. A strong, malty, seasonal lager sounded just right with a fall Eastern European meal. I was torn between the doppelbock and the maibock, though. I knew the maibock was stellar, but had yet to try the awarding-winning doppelbock. The latter is smoked, however, and I've found that smoked beers can be overwhelming when done without care. So I decided to grab both, to cook with the maibock and to sample them both with the food.
Upon arrival, I was warmly greeted by Karina and their three-year-old son, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that I would be doing all the cooking. "This is my grandmother's recipe," she explained in between instructions. "It was our traditional celebratory meal: sauerkraut with a big, fatty piece of meat. But Latvian sauerkraut is different from German. We rinse it, and cook it all day until it's caramelized and yummy."
While searing the meat and cooking some bacon for the kraut, Karina and I got to talking about her grandparents. "They fled from Latvia during the war, and ended up in Michigan," she told me. "They didn't speak English, obviously, but both were very artistic and were able to earn money with their skills, my grandfather as a master carpenter and my grandmother through pottery."
And while I clumsily attempted to navigate an unfamiliar kitchen and keep track of ingredients, all the while dodging a three-year-old pretending to swim across the floor, she gently reminded me that "Latvian cooking is simple; peasant food for farmers. Sometimes, pec acu mera is best, which in Latvian means 'by eye measure,' or in other words, just eyeball it."
Once the food was prepped and simmering, Alvis and I sneaked sips from a bomber of Great Divide's Oak Aged Yeti he'd opened for nostalgia's sake.
That evening, the table was humbly set with handmade dishes from Karina's grandmother, and the steamy sauerkraut and succulent shoulder were served forth. The kraut was amazing and gave a bright kick to the fatty meat, which fell apart on the plate, while the slow-cooked beer acted as a perfectly simple gravy for the dish. And much to my satisfaction, both bocks complemented the meal -- the malty maibock in its sweet reminiscence in the meat, and the quaffable doppelbock for its subtle (thankfully), smoky contrast to the tangy kraut.
We ate and drank and shared stories not-so-late into the night, which is considerably earlier than our younger years. But like I said, these days, the duration of a good time means much less to me than its substance.
Here's the sauerkraut recipe (courtesy of Karina's grandmother):
"This is a big recipe, but I like to make a lot and freeze it for special occasions. You can easily cut the ingredients in half," says Karina.
5 large jars of sauerkraut Water 1 pound bacon, chopped 1 large onion, chopped 7 whole peppercorns 2 bay leaves 1/2 cup brown sugar 2 tablespoons ketchup (strange I know, but trust me) 2 tablespoons butter
1. Drain three jars of sauerkraut and rinse thoroughly. 2. Drain the remaining two and leave un-rinsed. 3. Cook bacon in a very large pot over medium heat, until the fat begins to render off, but not so much that it's crispy. 4. Add onions and saute until soft and translucent, scrapping any brown bacon bits from the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. 5. Add sauerkraut and stir to combine. 6. Add peppercorns, bay leaves and brown sugar and stir to combine. 7. Using an empty jar, add water until sauerkraut is fully covered. 8. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook for 6-7 hours, stirring every hour or so. 9. Add ketchup and butter, bring to a soft boil, and cook until the moisture is gone, and the kraut begins to stick to the bottom of the pot.
And for the pork shoulder:
1 pork shoulder (about 4 pounds) Kosher salt 2 pints of good bock beer A crock pot
1. Season meat liberally with salt. 2. Sear each side in a large pot over high heat for 3-5 minutes, or until golden brown. 3. Transfer to crock pot, add beer and bring to a simmer. 4. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 6-7 hours. 5. Remove shoulder and pour beer into a large plastic bag. 6. Once fat separates from the beer gravy, cut bottom of bag and pour unto the pork.
And for more information about the local Latvian scene, including the celebration of their independence next month, go to their website.
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