Food falls into all kinds of categories. Next month it’ll be glistening and colourful, done in big quantities, no holds barred, the best we can muster. But for now, in the quiet backwaters of November, I’m slipping in a dish that is really the opposite: not beautiful to look at, humble, personal, and so delicious.
My husband’s mother Margaret is Hungarian Australian, and a brilliant cook. Staying at her and husband Alan’s house, being fed night after night, is such a treat. Hungarian dishes don’t appear on the menu all the time, but when they do a murmur of excitement ushers around. Most of the Hungarian dishes Margaret makes, she learnt from her mother Elizabeth. Stuffed peppers are the family hero, but there are also cabbage rolls and chicken paprika. Honey biscuits and the walnut and chocolate scrolls called hurdy gurdy have sustained a big family group on many occasions.
Weirdly enough, in 20 years, I’ve never eaten this rice dish at Marg’s house, but I filed it away in my mind when she described it to me once. When we started making our own sauerkraut, I asked for the recipe in more detail. Hungarian cooking at our house is usually my husband’s domain, but I stepped in here, somehow knowing I would love this even before I tasted it. I more than love it; lately I have been obsessed with it, dying to get through all the more urgent ingredients in the fridge just to get to that patient jar of salted sour cabbage …
This must be the easiest preserve/ferment you can make. All you do is slice cabbage (both colours or just one; with spices or without), then bash it in a big bowl with salt (1 tablespoon – the Australian 20 ml version – to every 0.8 kg cabbage). I thump it with the top of a mallet, and use a large metal spoon to flip the cabbage over occasionally. Get the kids/other members of your house involved! Keep crushing the cabbage until it becomes juicy (10 minutes or more). Then, pack it into a big clean jar and leave it at room temperature for 2–4 days. The cabbage will start sending up occasional bubbles. Start tasting it every day, and when you think it tastes good – I think the salt flavour recedes and the sourness emerges, forming something new – you transfer the jar to the fridge. You can then eat it whenever and however you want. If you eventually forget about it, all the better – then you can make this dish, which is a particularly good way to use older sauerkraut that has turned brown, but which still tastes perfectly good. I can vouch for sauerkraut keeping more than 1 year. In the photo, a sprightly batch of three-day-old sauerkraut meets 18-month sauerkraut.
Sauerkraut rice with pork and paprika
I like this simple dish so much that my vision could be clouded, but I feel there wouldn’t be many people out there who wouldn’t like it – apart from vegetarians and non pork eaters, obviously! I did try making it without pork, but it wasn’t quite the same, without that slightly creamy, savoury element that counterbalances the sauerkraut so well. Instead of pork, you could use minced beef or even lamb (or maybe you could try tofu), but pork makes it particularly Hungarian.
See note on cooking fermented foods (i.e. nutrition) at the end of the recipe, if that interests you.
1½ tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
about 300 g minced pork
1 tablespoon sweet paprika, plus extra to sprinkle on top if desired
1½ cups rice (I use jasmine)
about 1½ cups sauerkraut including some juice (this is a good use of older homemade sauerkraut that has turned brown)
750 ml (3 cups) water
½ teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
sour cream to serve
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat and add the onion. Fry until softened and beginning to turn golden, then add the garlic and fry for another minute. Add the pork and paprika and stir constantly until the meat is thoroughly crumbled and no longer pink. Stir in the rice briefly, then add the sauerkraut, water, salt and plenty of pepper. Stir well, cover with a lid and bring to the boil. Turn the heat back to low and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, until the water has been absorbed and the rice is tender. If the rice becomes dry before it is tender, add a splash more water. You may also need to add more salt to taste, as it depends on your sauerkraut.
Leave the cooked rice to sit in the pan for a few minutes covered with the lid. Then, serve in bowls topped with sour cream and an extra sprinkle of paprika if desired.
Note on cooking fermented foods
Most of us understand that eating fermented foods in their natural state gives us the most benefits, as they come laden with probiotics. But many countries that ferment food also have dishes where the fermented product is cooked. Korea: kimchi pancakes. India: yoghurt-based curries. Indonesia: fried tempeh. We all need variety, don’t we!? That might be the whole point of cooking … Probiotics are actually not the only benefit of fermented foods, because fermenting also increases the available nutrients, and breaks down anti-nutrients. In other words, cooking the sauerkraut in this dish does not mean all the good work of fermenting is wasted. And I think flavour is what this traditional dish is all about.