Ubuntu Restaurant & Yoga Studio was a concept ahead of its time. In 2008, when it transformed a Main Street futon shop into the sleek dining space now occupied by Torc, Ubuntu’s all-vegetarian menu pushed creative boundaries like nothing we had seen in Napa Valley — or even, I would argue, the Bay Area.
Chef Jeremy Fox, transformed seasonal vegetables into ground-breaking, gorgeous, and delicious works of art that people are still reminiscing about 10 years after the restaurant closed. The roast-puree-raw cauliflower in a cast iron pot with vadouvan. The fresh English peas with pea shell-consommé, mint, roasted macadamia and white chocolate. And also, for me, the game-changing sauerkraut pizza.
Sauerkraut is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of food for a lot of people, and I hated everything about it for many years. Extra-salty, bitter cabbage brought virtually no joy to the table for me.
While I admired its cultural and nutritional value in theory, I could only enjoy minute amounts of it as a mouth-cleansing condiment with charcuterie. I never ever wanted to make my own, never wanted to buy it from a store, never wanted to order a restaurant dish. But then, Jeremy Fox made a sauerkraut pizza that changed my view of it forever.
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Let me be the first to say it: “Sauerkraut pizza” sounds gross — especially to those of us who dislike sauerkraut. But, as an Ubuntu server convincingly explained to me that first time, Fox’s sauerkraut pizza tempered the aggressive bite of fermented cabbage with sweet caramelized onions, tangy purple mustard, sweet apple and confit garlic, fragrant caraway seeds, and charismatic cheese — first super stinky Époisses, and later the much milder raclette, mixed with melty mozzarella. (Many thanks to Heather Bailie for confirming ingredient details from her time at Ubuntu’s pizza station.)
It somehow struck the perfect balance of zesty, luscious, funky, sweet and salty, and it made me a believer. Especially when they put a runny-yolked farm egg on top.
While sauerkraut has yet to become my favorite food, I no longer avoid it like the plague. But I will say without hesitation that this pizza is its highest and best use.
The recipe that follows offers a simplified homage to the version I devoured at every opportunity during Ubuntu’s spectacular, far-too-short existence. Instead of two types of cheese, it calls for one.
Instead of purple mustard, use basic Dijon. Skip the apples and confit garlic altogether and just take your time caramelizing onions with plenty of chopped garlic. Though this isn’t a perfect facsimile, the essence of the dish is there. Until Oenotri puts a sauerkraut pizza on their menu, this is how I get my Ubuntu winter pizza fix.
Golden State Pickle Works at the Napa Farmers Market conveniently offers a caraway cabbage sauerkraut that’s ideal for this dish. Their smaller eight-ounce jar has enough to make this pizza one night, and accompany a charcuterie board the next. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, try this pizza using their fermented Golden Beet Slaw with Turmeric, or the Red Beet and Horseradish kraut. Pair it with a racy Riesling, Pinot Gris or Grüner Veltliner and get ready for a sauerkraut dish you’ll never forget.
Ubuntu-Style Sauerkraut Pizza
Serves 2-4, depending on what else you’re eating. Use 8 ounces of dough for a thin-crust 10-inch pie; if you have serious pizzaiolo skills, use 6 ounces for an even thinner, crispier crust.
1 large yellow onion, sliced thinly
3 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon butter or oil
1 pinch dried thyme leaves or 1 sprig fresh
1 cup sauerkraut
3 tablespoons crème fraîche
2½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
2-3 ounces aged Gruyère cheese, grated
8 ounces fresh pizza dough (enough for a thin-crust, 10-inch pie)
1/2 teaspoon chopped parsley for garnish
1 poached or fried egg (optional)
Preheat the oven to 500° F with a pizza stone in it if you have one; if not, use a heavy sheet pan with no edges. Gently sweat the sliced onion with the garlic, butter and thyme in a wide sauté pan until very soft and sweet (about 40 minutes). Meanwhile, grate your cheese. Mix the crème fraîche with the mustard and set aside at room temperature. Squeeze the sauerkraut to extract as much water as possible (save this juice to use for cocktails, meat marinades, or probiotic shots). Combine the drained sauerkraut and half the grated cheese with the caramelized onions in the pan off the heat, and mix well.
Roll or stretch the pizza dough into a 10-inch round on a piece of lightly floured parchment paper. Spread mustard-cream sauce all over the dough, leaving just a thin border around the edges; mix any extra sauce with the onions and sauerkraut. Distribute the sauerkraut mixture on top of the sauce layer, then top with the rest of the grated cheese. Gently press any protruding pieces of vegetables down so they won’t burn as easily. Trim off any excess parchment paper, and transfer the pizza on its paper to the preheated stone/pan in the oven. Bake for 5 minutes at 500° F, then lower the heat to 450° until the dough is cooked through (around 10 more minutes for an 8-ounce crust).
Garnish with chopped parsley, and a poached or sunny-side-up egg if you like.
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