have made traditional sauerkraut
In a message dated 2/7/2009 8:00:38 P.M. Pacific Standard Time,
Traditional Christmas feasts are often anticipated for weeks in advance, as
much for their predictability as their promise of impossible indulgence. The
Slovak version is an odd mixture of some mainstream treats (wafers with
honey, toasted almonds, roasted chestnuts) and more unusual counterparts,
the strangest being raw cloves of garlic, eaten in bites. Slovaks insist
this custom is to ensure a healthy New Year - as if that were a good enough
There are some regional differences in the format of the Christmas feast,
including the principal dish - carp and potato salad - which is eaten
everywhere except the far east of Slovakia. However, one of the courses is
as predictable as the freezing winter weather no matter where you are, and
that is cabbage soup (kapusnica), eaten as the second course, after the
wafers and honey and the raw garlic.
No watery gruel, the cabbage soup that graces Slovakia's festive dinner
tables is a rich mixture of several unexpectedly complementary ingredients
that explode with flavour against a creamy base fragrant with paprika and
black pepper. In the east, where the carp is eschewed, the soup is the main
feature of the seasonal feast, accompanied by thick chunks of freshly baked
bread or Christmas cake.
The cabbage used in this staple dish is not the fresh variety but regular
sauerkraut, which has the huge advantage of being already shredded. Many
Slovaks still make the sauerkraut themselves, particularly in rural areas,
but don't be ashamed to buy it in a bag from the supermarket.
The outcome of your soup depends on the sauerkraut you use as your base, but
unfortunately it's not just a simple case of buying the most expensive on
offer on the assumption that it will have the nicest flavour. With this
regional speciality, quality has nothing to do with price.
Cut the corner off your bag of sauerkraut (a kilo bag is good for four to
six people) and pour the sour water into a large casserole. Then empty the
cabbage onto a chopping board for inspection. Take a look at the size of the
strands of cured cabbage. If they are too long, chop them up. Because you
will be eating the soup with a spoon, it's important that all the
ingredients are small enough. Now add the cabbage to the pot.
Slovak cabbage soup is made with some kind of strong meat, usually spicy
sausage (klobása) or smoked ham (šunka). An innovative and slightly
healthier substitute is smoked turkey leg, with the meat still on the bone.
Vegetarians can try using smoked tofu, thrown in about 10 minutes before the
soup is ready.
So before you let the heat work its magic, add your meat to the pot - use
about a half kilo, or whatever looks right to you - and a litre of water.
Turn on the heat, bring to the boil and simmer for an hour, with the lid
askew on the top.
After half an hour or so, extract your meat, chop it up into bite-size
pieces and put it to one side.
In a bowl, soak a packet of dried mushrooms in water. It's preferable to use
just one type of dried mushroom, but if the shop only has a mixed packet, it
will do. The ideal mushrooms for cabbage soup should impart a delicate
earthy flavour to the liquid, so punchy varieties like the Italian porcini
are not the best ones to use.
The bitter back bite of the sauerkraut will fade away as the soup boils, and
after an hour the cabbage should be soft and sweet. Check the amount of
liquid in the pot and add more water if necessary. At this point, add
everything else: the mushrooms and their water, the chopped meat, a couple
of handfuls of prunes (a Christmas treat), three cloves of garlic (finely
chopped), salt, pepper and a good pinch of paprika.
Once these ingredients have infused into the dish, you can decide on your
finishing touch. In some regions, people pour in a carton of fresh cream
just as the flame is turned off. Elsewhere, cooks make a quick roux in a pan
briefly frying flour in sunflower oil, and add that to the pot. Both
methods will thicken the soup and add a creamy finish.
Most families make their cabbage soup a day in advance because they believe
it gains personality overnight. It's certainly true that the ingredients
that go in last benefit from several hours soaking. The next day,
tantalizing garlicky aromas envelop the pot and the prunes have grown plump
Some Slovaks eat the soup with boiled potatoes, others with bread on the
side. Mulled wine is a nice accompaniment.
INGREDIENTS (serves four to six people)
1 kilo sauerkraut
500-700 grams meat (usually smoked ham or sausage)
1 litre water
1 packet dried mushrooms
1 packet prunes
3 cloves garlic
Freshly milled black pepper
A carton of cream (optional)
For the roux: 1 tbs flour, 1 tbs sunflower oil
- with Miroslav Karpaty
These articles and related information were published in Spectacular
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