Meatballs with Beer and Sauerkraut
Growing up in the United States as a child of Hungarian immigrants, you soon realize you’re not like the other American kids. I grew up eating foods that my fellow classmates and friends probably would never have eaten. Since cabbage and sauerkraut is prevalent in Hungarian cooking, you can imagine much of my childhood smelled like I was living in a fart. Whenever my mom cooked stuffed cabbage, the kitchen would reek of it. To this day stuffed cabbage is my least favorite Hungarian food.
My second-least favorite food was székelykáposzta, a stew of pork cooked in sauerkraut. It’s eaten with sour cream and bread. Interestingly it wasn’t until I moved to Hungary five years ago that I started having a craving for this dish. Somewhere around 2019 I satisfied the craving by ordering the dish in a quaint pub—or kocsma as it’s called—in Budapest. And I honestly surprised myself that day, because I ate it all and lapped up the liquid with the bread provided.
Years later I decided to come up with a riff on that dish, but something leaner. So I decided I was going to cook meatballs in sauerkraut instead of the typical fatty cubes of pork butt. I’ve tested the recipe with fattier ground pork and leaner ground pork. I do prefer it with leaner pork, but fattier pork will give you richer flavor. And the meat will be more tender. I’ll leave it up to you to decide what kind of ground pork you like. Keep in mind, you won’t need to cook the leaner meat for as long as the fattier meat.
To make this recipe just a bit more interesting I flavor it with beer and juniper berries. I’ve also tested this recipe with white wine, gin, vodka, and caraway seeds. I’ve come to really appreciate this dish even more every time I reinvent it. Give it a try, and feel free to change up the alcohol and even the spices to find what appeals to you the most. Either way the flavor profile of this dish holds true to its eastern European roots.
Meatballs with Beer and Sauerkraut1 pound ground pork
fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon summer savory
1 to 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 medium onion finely chopped
1 tablespoon juniper berries, crushed
1 tablespoon tomato paste
24-ounce can light beer, like lager
27-ounce can of sauerkraut
sliced rye bread, for serving
In a large mixing bowl, season the ground pork liberally with salt and pepper. Add the summer savory and paprika. Combine with your fingertips so as not to compact the meat. You’ve done a good job once you see no striations of paprika in the meat.
To form the meatballs, moisten your hands. Form about 9 to 12 golf ball-size balls. Set the meatballs aside, or refrigerate until you’re ready to use them. Just be sure to let them come to room temperature before cooking.
In a large pot over medium heat, drizzle enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pot. Add the onion and a large pinch of salt, and cook until translucent. Add the crushed juniper berries and toast until aromatic. Add the tomato paste and toast and stir until the paste darkens. Deglaze the pot with the beer.
Stir in the sauerkraut, and increase the heat to almost a boil. Check the seasoning and add more salt and pepper if necessary. Nestle the meatballs into the sauerkraut. You might need to add some water, but there should be enough liquid from the beer and sauerkraut.
Cover the pot and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for about 15 to 20 minutes. Give the mixture a gentle stir and/or jostle the meatballs a bit to make sure they are cooking through nicely. Recheck the seasoning. Cook for an additional 15 to 20 minutes or until the onion is soft, and the meatballs are cooked through. Serve 3 to 4 meatballs per person with rye bread. Yield: 4 servings.