This time of year presents a culinary conundrum of sorts. It still feels like summer during the day, but at night the cool air hints at the season to come. There are lots of tomatoes on the plants but they are slower to ripen now, and the herbs are going to seed. And I am bored with summer food. My rather short culinary attention span has me yearning for something different. I am ready to move on to autumn cookery. So once again comes the question, what’s for dinner?
My goal for a casual Sunday supper was to incorporate a little of summer and fall into the menu. I wanted something light and fresh to start followed by a more robust main course. I decided to prepare a salad in the style of the old-fashioned classic Waldorf; apples, celery, walnuts, and blue cheese tossed with romaine in a vinaigrette dressing. This was followed by hearty braised sauerkraut with smoked pork chops and bratwurst. As plums are still abundant in the markets, dessert would feature them in some form. Here is what I did:
Romaine with Apples and Walnuts
There is no need for a recipe here. Use the best salad leaves available to you; I had romaine, but any of the more sturdy salad greens would work. I cut my romaine in long crosswise strips (chiffonade in culinary jargon), and added to the bowl a small quantity of finely minced onion. Then I cut a Fuji apple into match sticks and sprinkled those with a little lemon juice. Next came celery ribs, again , cut into matchsticks. A handful of toasted walnuts and a sprinkle of firm textured blue cheese completed the mix. I tossed this with a little olive oil, champagne vinegar, salt, and pepper, and it was done. Some versions of Waldorf salad call for grapes and a mayonnaise-based dressing; if these options appeal to you, by all means include them in your salad.
Here is a guideline for the preparation of the sauerkraut dish. It is based upon the French classic choucroute, but is a much faster and easier version. This quantity should feed 4-5 people, depending on appetites.
Drain and rinse well a 2 pound quantity of sauerkraut. I find the best brands come in a jar or plastic bag in the refrigerator section of the market. Squeeze out as much moisture as possible from the kraut and set it aside. In a large Dutch oven or heavy saucepan, lightly saute 6 pieces of diced bacon. When the bacon has rendered some fat, add a medium diced onion, and a finely chopped small carrot. When the vegetables have softened somewhat, add the sauerkraut. Stir well to combine, then add 1 1/2 cups of chicken stock and a 1/2 cup of white wine. Season with a small bay leaf, 3-4 crushed juniper berries, and a few fresh sprigs of thyme. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat, place the lid on slightly askew, and simmer for an hour. Check the level of the liquid from time to time; if it seems dry replenish with chicken stock. At this point add the meats to the simmering sauerkraut. You may lightly brown the sausages before putting them in the pot, but this is not absolutely necessary. Choose a variety of meats such as smoked pork chops, bratwurst, veal sausages, or ham. Push them down into the sauerkraut, replace the lid, and cook until the meats are done. Towards the end of cooking, check the mixture for seasoning and adjust to your taste with salt and pepper. In the meantime, boil or steam a quantity of small redskin or Yukon gold potatoes to serve with the sausages and kraut. Butter them lightly and season with salt, pepper, and chopped fresh parsley. To serve place a generous spoonful of sauerkraut in a shallow soup dish or dinner plate. Place your chosen meats atop the sauerkraut; sausages may be sliced into thick chunks or halves, and add some of the potatoes alongside. Several varieties of mustard and pickles make a nice addition to the meal.
For dessert I decided to make a plum trifle. This is a departure for me as I am not a fan of trifle. It seems that no matter how lovely this dessert looks layered in a tall glass bowl, it loses its charm when spooned out into portions. So I decided to make individual servings in small glass dessert dishes. I found some lovely ripe pluots at the market and I chose those over plums. I made a compote of the pluots (recipe to follow). Most trifles consist of layers of cake, fruit or fruit preserves, and custard sauce. Sponge cake makes a good base but pound cake is also an option. Either of these can be purchased at the supermarket. I made a single layer hot water sponge cake, diced it into 1/2 inch cubes and set it aside to dry a little before I assembled my trifle cups. Then I prepared my custard sauce. This is a small quantity but should suffice for 4-5 individual trifles.
Heat 1 cup of milk and 1 Tablespoon of sugar in a medium saucepan. While the milk is heating, mix 2 egg yolks with 1 tablespoon of sugar in a small bowl. Add about half of the hot milk to the egg yolks, whisking all the while, to temper them. Add the yolk mixture back to the pot and cook over medium low heat until the sauce coats a spoon. If you have an instant read thermometer, the temperature of the mixture should be 170F. Strain the sauce through a fine sieve into a medium bowl, and place in a larger container of ice and water to cool it quickly. When cool, flavor your sauce with your choice of vanilla or your favorite liquor. About 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon should be adequate. Refrigerate the sauce until chilled.
To assemble the trifles, place a layer of cake cubes in your chosen serving dish. Spoon on some of the plum compote, then drizzle over several spoonfuls of custard sauce. Repeat the layers once more. At this point you can cover and refrigerate the desserts for an hour or so. Before serving whip some heavy cream sweetened with confectioners sugar to soft peaks. Dollop a spoonful of cream atop each trifle and serve.
Plum (or Pluot) Compote ( adapted from “New Classic Family Dinners” by Mark Peel)
2 1/2 pounds plums or pluots
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 inch piece cinnamon stick
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 strip of lemon zest, 1 inch long by 1/2 inch wide
1/2 cup fruity red wine, such as Beaujolais
Cut the plums in half, remove the pits, then cut into 1 inch chunks. Combine the plums and the remaining ingredients in a heavy, medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to medium and cook, stirring often, for 15 minutes until the liquid has concentrated and the plums have softened but are mostly intact. Remove from the heat. Remove the cinnamon stick and lemon zest. Put through a large-holed strainer or a food mill fitted with the medium screen. Allow to cool, transfer to a bowl or container, and chill.
*I found that I was able to remove most of the pluot skins from the mixture as they floated to the top during the cooking. Then at the end I simply mashed the mixture with a potato masher to a coarse puree. Since I have plenty of leftover pluot compote, I intend to enjoy it with yogurt for breakfast, but it would be equally good spooned over ice cream.