Saturday, March 10, 2012

Slovenian Dinner Week 6: A Traditional Sauerkraut and Bean Soup


Vipavska Čorba or Jota (Sauerkraut, Bean and Bacon Soup)
Braised Dandelion Greens with Peas
Green Salad
Whole Wheat Walnut Bread

I discovered the recipe for Vipavska Corba, or Slovenian Sauerkraut Soup, on a witty and erudite blog called The Austerity Kitchen.   The blogger, a young English professor and cultural historian, makes good on her promise to "bring you the best simple, savory fare history has to offer."  She had found the recipe in A Cookbook for Poor Poets and Others, written in the 1960s.

The recipe looked tempting and unusual.  How could you go wrong with sauerkraut, white beans, and bacon?  I even had a bag of sauerkraut left over from the goulash I'd made two weeks earlier.

So far, my cooking project had been heavy on cabbage and sauerkraut, two foods I had always enjoyed.   In fact, I had just learned a fascinating bit of family lore that might help explain it.

The previous weekend, we'd had a mini family reunion for my mother's eighty-ninth birthday.  Four generations together.   First time I'd seen my mother's younger brother in seventeen years.  When I told my uncle about my new ethnic cooking project, he started to reminisce.  Turns out my grandmother used to make sauerkraut, in a barrel or crock, with a board on top that was weighted down with a rock.

"Mom," I said, in what must have sounded like an accusation, "You never told me Grandma made sauerkraut!"

She looked surprised.  "Blair, everyone did.  You could always tell who was making sauerkraut.  The whole house smelled."  In her family, they kept the fermenting sauerkraut in the basement.

So maybe sauerkraut is in my blood.

I had just one question.  How legitimate was this soup recipe?  I couldn't find any references to it in my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks or, for that matter, on the Internet.  I didn't want to stray too far from my primary sources.

But when I looked more closely, I realized that it was a recipe for jota ("yota"), a traditional thick soup found in Slovenia and in Northern Italy.  Vipavska Čorba ("chorba") means "chowder from Vipava," a Slovenian town about fifteen miles from Trieste.  There were very similar soup recipes in my cookbooks, under a variety of names.  So I figured I was on safe ground.

I made a few changes in the original recipe.  To save time, I used canned beans instead of cooking them from scratch.  I used a thick sliced bacon instead of cubed slab bacon.  I cooked the bacon in the microwave rather than boiling and then adding it (fatty broth and all!) to the soup.  I upped the seasonings and decided to add some parsley.

And one more thing:  I had a feeling that this soup, like so many other Slovenian dishes, was meant to include a dark roux. So I browned  the flour-oil-vegetable mix before adding the rest of the ingredients, although the original recipe didn't mention this.  But I had a higher authority: My mother.

She and I had recently been discussing a different soup, something thick and dark, that she recalled from her childhood.  So far, I hadn't found a recipe that seemed to match her recollections.

"Did it have a roux?" I asked my mother.

She laughed.  "Blair, everything had a roux!"

Just like the Cajuns.  Who would have guessed?

2 cans small white beans (3 c.)
1 lb. sauerkraut
6 oz. bacon (5 strips)
1/2 lb. potatoes
1 T. flour
1 T. olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 fresh bay leaves
fresh parsley to taste
salt and pepper to taste
yogurt for garnish

Cube the potatoes and cook in boiling salted water until tender.  Save the water. Cook the bacon, dice, and set aside.  Drain the beans.  You might want to drain the sauerkraut for a less sharp flavor.  But I didn't.

Brown the onion and garlic in olive oil.  Sprinkle with flour and let brown.   Add a little liquid to thicken.  (Yes, this is our old familiar friend, a brown roux.) Add the beans, the potatoes and their cooking liquid, the sauerkraut, the bacon, and the bay leaves.  Add more liquid if needed.  Season to taste with salt, pepper, and parsley.  Cover and cook until heated and flavors are blended.

Serve with yogurt or sour cream and a good sprinkling of parsley.

We rounded out the dinner with a hearty bread, a green salad, and braised dandelion greens with peas, courtesy of my husband.

The verdict?  Flavorful and unusual, as I expected.  A fine choice if you like sauerkraut. Next time, I might add a little white wine—preferably Slovenian, of course!

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