Monday, August 17, 2020

The New improved Jota (Bean and Sauerkraut Stew), with vegan option

I first tried to make jota in early 2012. That was the year I took my deep dive into Slovenian cooking. I had never heard of this iconic bean and sauerkraut stew and I was eager to experiment. The version I made was pleasant but mild. And very white: sauerkraut, small white beans, white potatoes, and  a dollop of yogurt. The monochromatic color scheme was broken only by the sprinkle of parsley on top. I never got around to trying it again.

Jota, with white beans, 2012

Now, eight years later, I have made jota for the second time. And I am a believer! It was wonderful. Comforting and zesty. It was a success mostly due to the limitations created by cooking in confinement.

The first big difference: Apache beans, which I had recently discovered work well as a substitute for borlotti or Roman beans in pašta fižol. In fact, if it weren't for that big bag of dried beans sitting in the pantry, I probably wouldn't have given jota another chance. I don't know what made the difference, the switch from white to red beans, or the fact that the beans were cooked from scratch this time. Probably both!

Apache Beans

Another challenge: Jota is traditionally cooked with bits of bacon (my choice last time) or smoked meat. Although we did have some smoked sausage on hand, it was a Louisiana-style andouille. I was concerned that the assertive Cajun spices would overwhelm the more subtle Slovenian-ness of this traditional dish, so I decided to make the sausage separately and serve it on the side.

Oh-oh! Without really planning to, I had backed into making vegan jota! Now I was really facing a challenge. But a little online research revealed that my first recipe (from a non-Slovenian source) had been a particularly mild version, compared to the other approaches I was discovering. So I upped the garlic and added three new ingredients: tomato paste, paprika, and a touch of liquid smoke, the suggestion of a Slovenian vegetarian blogger.

These changes, growing out of a time of adversity, made all the difference. Even without the sausage, this version of jota was a winner. I can't wait to make it again!

Update: A month later (just after writing this post!) I was inspired to do it again, with one small change: Instead of sweet paprika, I used the hot smoked paprika I had recently bought. That created some added zest and it also eliminated the need for liquid smoke.

Jota, or Slovenian Bean and Sauerkraut Stew

1 cup dried borlotti, Roman, or Apache beans
2-3 medium potatoes (about 10 ounces cooked)
16 ounces sauerkraut
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, cubed
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon flour
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons tomato paste (or catsup, in a pinch)
2-3 teaspoons paprika (sweet or smoked *)
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups potato water or other liquid
(Optional: 1/4 teaspoon liquid smoke, unless you use smoked paprika!)
Parsley to garnish

* To compensate for the absence of meat, consider using smoked paprika (preferred) or liquid smoke (which also works)

If desired: Smoked meat or sausage can be served on the side
If desired: Yogurt or sour cream (or a dairy-free alternative) to garnish

Prepare beans in the usual way:  Soak overnight, simmer until tender, and drain. You should have about 2-1/2 cups of cooked beans. (Yes, you can substitute 2 cans of beans, although I don't recommend it!)

Cube the potatoes and cook in boiling salted water until tender. Save the water. Drain sauerkraut if you want a milder dish. (I didn't!)

Heat olive oil in a large pot and cook onions until softened. Add garlic, sprinkle with flour, and cook for several more minutes, stirring constantly until mixture turns golden. (Yes, you are making a roux, just like the Cajuns!) Add a little water to this mixture and stir to make a sauce. Add the tomato paste, the remaining seasonings, the sauerkraut, and additional liquid as needed. Simmer the mixture for 10-15 minutes. Add the cooked potatoes and beans and simmer for 20 more minutes. At the end, taste the seasonings and adjust.

To serve, garnish with parsley,  plus yogurt or sour cream if desired. Sausage or other meat can be served alongside.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Pašta Fižol with Apache Beans

I was starting to stock our pandemic pantry with hefty bags of dried beans. Garbanzos and black beans were easy to find online. My husband hinted that I might want to find some of the beans I had used in my Slovenian recipes. White beans, perhaps?

But my thoughts immediately went to another variety, the speckled red-and-white beans known as Roman or borlotti beans.

These unusual beans were the foundation for a special soup my late mother recalled fondly from her Cleveland childhood but had trouble describing. My mother's mystery bean soup turned out to be a delicious variation of pašta fižol, in which the beans are pureed before adding the pasta--in this case, homemade square egg noodles Slovenians call bleki.

Borlotti beans are considered heirloom beans and can be hard to locate even in normal times. I did find some online--for a price. But my search pulled up another bean variety that was described as a good alternative--in the same bean family, and with a similar red-and-white pattern.They even cost less than the borlotti beans and would arrive faster.

So I decided to take a chance.  When the beans arrived, I was struck by the vivid and distinct pattern.

I also learned they had a fascinating international pedigree: Sold by a Canadian company, imported by a company in New Jersey and grown in Kyrgyzstan--from a strain of pinto beans first developed in the United States in the 1980s!

A few days later, I decided to make traditional pašta fižol, using the un-pureed recipe I had made originally. It just happened to be Trubar Day, a fitting time to celebrate my Slovenian heritage.

Naturally, I had to make a few more pandemic-required adjustments. Instead of bacon or pancetta, I used the only smoked meat we had available: Italian chicken sausage. Catsup instead of tomato paste. And store-bought Italian dried pasta, since I didn't have the time or energy for handmade bleki.

Despite the substitutions and the pasta shortcut, the dish was a success. Those Apache beans (seen in the before-and-after photos below) seemed to be a more than adequate substitute for borlotti beans. Their pretty colors were still faintly visible after cooking and the flavor was rich and slightly sweet.

I couldn't wait to use them again!

After: Apache beans, cooked

Before: Apache beans, dried

Pašta Fižol (with pandemic substitutions) 

1 lb. dried Roman beans (borlotti or cranberry beans) Apache beans, cooked
5 oz. turkey bacon or pancetta  Italian chicken sausages, 5-10 oz.
2-3 T. olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 T. flour
2 t. paprika
1 clove garlic, minced
2 T. tomato paste catsup
1 c. hot water
2 t. marjoram
1 bay leaf
1/2 t. pepper
salt to taste
2 t. vinegar
homemade bleki/square noodles  4 ounces dried Italian pasta elbows
parsley to garnish

For detailed cooking instructions, see the original post: