Pittsburgh needs more brats.
No, not ill-mannered kids. We have enough of those little wieners. More braahts, as in bratwurst.
More Pennsylvanians claim German ancestry than any other ethnicity, yet we've let the cheeseheads of Wisconsin and even Bucyrus, Ohio (Bratwurst capital of America) hog the glory of this classic German sausage. If Oktoberfest is the only time you even think about brats, well, you're missing out on the best wurst of all.
About 12 years ago, I went looking for locally made bratwurst, knackwurst and other wursts like those once served at my cousins' restaurant, Carl Meyer's Hof, in downtown Buffalo, N.Y. I was disappointed to find only national brands such as Johnsonville and enough kielbasa and Italian sausage to make a green weenie shake. I wanted to serve something authentic to Beer Club, a group of South Hills guys who used their wives' book club as an excuse to get together once a month to drink beer. It was Pete Countouris, a club member who regularly celebrated his Greek heritage with a lamb roast, who turned me on to Usinger's (usinger.com).
This 125-plus-year-old, family-owned wurstmacher in Milwaukee has nearly a dozen kinds of bratwurst alone, most made with pork and veal, sometimes with a little beef thrown in, and mildly seasoned with marjoram. Its cooked bratwurst, my favorite, is available at McGinnis Sisters markets, but Usinger's also will ship dozens of others, including knackwurst -- pork and beef with garlic -- summer sausage, blood sausage, weisswurst and bockwurst, which are similar to brats except with parsley.
For many years, Usinger's supplied my annual Oktoberfests, starring alongside Penn Oktoberfest beer, Pretzel Factory brezels and sauerbraten, sauerkraut mit pork and other man-made German specialties. I also discovered extra- strong Lowensenf mustard and Schramm's almost-crispy sauerkraut, which I believe is the closest thing I'll find to the Alsatian choucroute that Carl Meyer, my great-grandfather, enjoyed before he immigrated to Buffalo in the early 1900s.
A wallpaper-hanger and bartender, he worked at a series of taverns before he'd saved enough to open a restaurant at the end of Prohibition. I never knew him but I loved the place he founded. Since it closed in the early 1980s, I've searched for that feeling of Gemutlichkeit wherever I've lived. I joined Teutonia Mannerchor on the North Side because it served the best German food I'd had in Pittsburgh.
For my Oktoberfest this year, set for tonight, I decided to go whole hog and serve some local sausage. I had heard for years about Tom Friday's Market in Brighton Heights, but had never been there. This summer, my wife stumbled upon it and brought me back some of his fresh bratwurst and Irish bangers. Though the brats aren't as white as Usinger's, they're just as tasty, and they gave me an idea: Would Tom make me smaller brats and knacks similar to Nurnberger bratwurst?
First recorded in 1313, the brats supposedly shrank in the 1500s so Nuremberg butchers could sell more of them at a premium price. I just wanted something small enough that my guests could try both wursts and so I could try my own version of choucroute garnie. In Alsace-Lorraine, this favorite dish tops a pile of sauerkraut with sausage, potatoes and salty meats. Mine features Schramm's sauerkraut, Friday's "Pittsburgher" brats and mini-knacks, and Rotkraut, or sweet red cabbage. Also new this year are Nurnberger-style brats, Lowensenf mustard in tubes and Heinz curry ketchup, all from Bavaria Sausage in Madison, Wis.
Too bad Heinz doesn't sell curry ketchup around here -- its spicy, sweet taste is a favorite at the real Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. Isn't it about time our fests got a little wurst?
Red Cabbage (Rotkraut)
I left out the raisins in this recipe, which I felt needed something like hot mustard to balance the sweetness.
-- Kevin Kirkland
- 1 medium head fresh red cabbage
- 1 cup beef broth
- 3 whole cloves or 1/2 tablespoon grated cloves
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 medium peeled and cut apple
- 1 tablespoon raisins
- 1 medium chopped onion
- Dash of salt
- 1/2 tablespoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons brown gravy mix
Cut cabbage into fine strips and rinse under cold water in a strainer. In a pot, bring broth to a boil. Add the cabbage and combine with cloves, bay leaves, apple, raisins, onion, salt and sugar.
Reduce heat, cover and cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes. Bring to a boil again and blend in the brown gravy mix. Simmer over low heat for another hour or longer. Yields 4 servings.
-- "The Best of My Grandmother's German Cookery" by Carmen Graves (1998)
Correction/Clarification: (Published September 28, 2012) Thursday's recipe for Red Cabbage (Rotkaut) was missing one ingredient: 2 tablespoons of brown gravy mix.
Kevin Kirkland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978.