I often don't feel like cooking an elaborate meal on New Year's Day, and I doubt I'm alone in this. I enjoy staying up late on New Year's Eve, whether I'm partying or quietly contemplating the past 365 days. And, I'm on the brink of my winter hibernation mode, worn out from all the holiday feasting and revelry.
Because I want to have my sauerkraut and eat it too, I fully embrace a hearty, delicious, traditional meal that can be made the day before and heated up for dinner on January 1st.
Sauerkraut, for luck
We always ate sauerkraut and pork at New Year’s when I was a kid. This probably has something to do with folks from Germany settling in Ohio (where I was raised) and Pennsylvania (where my parents grew up).
The sauerkraut symbolizes luck and prosperity for the year to come. The pork is served because pigs root forward for their food, indicating forward motion in the new year. Apparently, it’s bad luck to eat poultry on January 1st, and especially chicken, because chickens scratch backward for their food, and that symbolism doesn't bode well for the year to come.
I don’t really buy into any of this (especially since we no longer eat pork or beef regularly). But each year, I make sure we have a jar of sauerkraut on the shelf.
I’d like to make my own someday, really, I would — but meanwhile, I just buy a kind that doesn’t have caraway seeds, one of the few flavors my husband strongly dislikes.
My sauerkraut success has been varied over the years. Depending on the shenanigans of the previous night, sometimes we’ve opened the jar around 10 p.m. I’ve eaten it cold. I’ve cooked it in the crockpot with pork, and on the stovetop with various types of sausage. I never hated sauerkraut, but I never loved it either, until I discovered (and tweaked) the recipe I’m about to share with you.
New Year’s is one of my favorite holidays, but I try not to take it too seriously. I understand that’s why many people hate the thought of New Year’s Eve.
There is a certain amount of pressure if you allow yourself to go there, to be in just the right place at the right time wearing the right thing with the right person, especially at midnight. But though I do like to dress up a little (even if we’re staying in, as COVID has ensured we will be this year), I’ve learned to embrace the evening with minimal fuss.
I love New Year’s Eve because it’s a fresh start. Anything is possible. Maybe this year I’ll finally lose weight, achieve the perfect work-life balance, be kind to myself and others, stop worrying, remember to play with the cats every day, reduce my alcohol consumption, slow down, hang out with my family more (assuming pandemic conditions allow it), be less of a slob, keep in touch with old friends, believe in random acts of kindness, and remember to wash my face every night before I crash. It’s not about expectations, and it’s not about pressure. It’s the fact that, on January 1st, these things could happen. And maybe some of them actually will.
But, back to sauerkraut.
This is an adaptation of a recipe I found years ago on epicurious.com. It’s a stovetop version, and after my tweaks, it can be made in one pot. Though caramelizing the onions definitely adds some time to the overall effort, I think it’s well worth it.
This recipe is well-suited for pork, beef, or turkey kielbasa. I’ve tried it with all three. I see no reason you couldn’t use a vegetarian kielbasa product, but I haven’t personally tested that theory.
Sauerkraut and Kielbasa
Serve with mashed potatoes and chunky applesauce. I’ve always wanted to add a green salad and some sourdough bread, but it never seems to happen.
If you have a cast-iron Dutch oven, it works beautifully for this recipe. If not (or if, like me, you’re stuck with one of those silly glass-top electric stoves for the time being, and can’t use your cast-iron Dutch oven), no worries — a large pot will work just fine too.
- 1 to 2 pounds kielbasa, sliced
- Olive oil and/or butter as needed
- 2 large onions, thinly sliced
- 1 1/2 tsp dry mustard
- 1 1/2 tsp dried dill
- 1/2 tsp salt (to start)
- 1 tart apple, peeled and chopped
- 8 peppercorns
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 jar or can of sauerkraut, approx. 27 oz., drained
- 1 cup dark beer (substitute stock if you prefer)
- 3 bay leave
In a large pot, brown the kielbasa slices in two batches so you don’t crowd the meat. If you’re using turkey or veggie kielbasa, you may need to heat some olive oil or butter first, since it won’t have as much (if any) fat. Remove the slices to a bowl and set aside.
The next step is to caramelize the onions in the fat from the kielbasa. You want somewhere between 2 and 3 TB of fat, so depending on what’s in your pot, you might need to pour some out or add some butter and olive oil. Add the sliced onions to the pot over low heat, along with the dry mustard, dill, and salt.
Cook over low heat until soft, stirring periodically so the onions don’t stick. Increase the heat slightly and cover the pot. Cook, stirring frequently until the onions are very tender and nicely browned, about 15 minutes more. If the onions stick, lower the heat a bit. Add the apple, peppercorns, and brown sugar. Stir and cook for another couple of minutes.
Add the sauerkraut to the pot. (I use the regular variety, not the Bavarian, because of the caraway seed issue as noted above, but I’m sure the Bavarian would work nicely if you like that kind of thing.) Stir in the beer or stock and the bay leaves. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
Add the browned kielbasa slices. Cover and simmer for another 20 minutes. Taste, and adjust seasonings if necessary. You want it to taste like a melding of all the flavors, with no specific ingredient dominating. Discard bay leaves and serve hot, alongside or atop mashed potatoes.
Side note: This recipe makes fabulous leftovers. In fact, I’ve started making it on December 31st and then reheating it on New Year’s Day whenever we’re ready to eat. I prefer to take it easy on New Year’s Day. It’s time to wind down after all the holiday visiting and entertaining.
I keep threatening to make this recipe more regularly. We like it so much it seems to warrant a spot on our table more than once a year.
But, just like we don’t drink champagne every day, some meals should be saved for special occasions.