I’m sharing another part of chapter from my book, A Bowl of Comfort: Slovak Soups & Stews.
With 26 recipes, cultural stories, and in-depth health info on traditional cooking practices, there is so much more than I’ve shared here!
Here I’m sharing about the batch style cooking of the old world, food that took minimum active time, as well as the recipe for kapustnica, Slovak sauerkraut soup. A hearty soup, it is often served when needed to fit a crowd.
Have you heard of batch cooking? With batch cooking, you prepare all your meals for, say, a month at a time on one day, then freeze the meals. Then for dinners every day, you only have to pull a bag out of the freezer to prepare. It saves a lot of time and decision-making, as well as the what-are-we-going-to-have-for-supper stress.
Slovaks once had that method down pat. Before the advent of fridges and freezers, food had to be preserved, which made cooking with it that much faster the day it was eaten.
The action of salt and bacteria work on vegetables in the fermentation process, not only keeping vegetables from rotting but at the same time increasing their nutritional value with probiotics and more vitamins and enzymes.
Sauerkraut is the classic European example of a fermented vegetable. Cabbages were harvested in the late fall, shredded, and packed into a ceramic crock with salt. The salt prevents putrificating bacteria from acting until the lactic acid bacteria have made the environment acidic enough to kill the bad bacteria.
Whereas today sauerkraut eaters are mainly concerned with probiotics and health benefits, those who made sauerkraut to prolong the harvest were mainly concerned with food scarcity and good taste. So they had no qualms about chopping up sauerkraut and throwing it a pot of broth, or baking it into a casserole. Although the heat from cooking kills the probiotics, they may still have health benefits even when dead. Cooking also mellows out the sour taste of fermented veggies. Cooking sauerkraut is a good way to introduce those who are nervous about eating such a ‘weird’ food and are unused to the sour taste of fermented vegetables.
Meat was also preserved ‘batch style.’ I grew up on a farm, but when we butchered an animal, all of it went straight to the freezer. When a pig in Slovakia is butchered, some meat goes into the freezer but also much of it is made into various products that can be used right away: liver pate, rice and organ sausages, headcheese, etc. Many meat products were once smoked as the meat would then keep for a long time hanging up. Klobasa (sausages) and bacon, of course, but also smoked ribs or headcheese smoked in the stomach. It’s still normal to have smoked ribs hanging in a butcher shop.
You’ll notice that many of the soups use smoked ham (actually smoked ribs) and klobasa. Traditionally, when it was time to cook dinner, the cabbage was already cut, the meat already cooked, it just had to be mixed together and simmered or baked.
Most Slovaks needed meals that didn’t require a lot of active cooking time. As an agrarian society, the farmers worked long hours in the fields or on the farm, women as well as men. Surviving takes a lot of time. Even in the winter, when there wasn’t as much work outside, there were still feathers to clean, linen and clothes to embroider, shingles to carve.
I like to imagine that a woman grabbed a few handfuls of legumes and put them to soak at night. Then in the morning, she put the soaked legumes in a pot with a rack of smoked ribs and left it at the back of the stove to simmer away while she worked outside. The work of minutes. Before lunch, she came to add some vegetables that kept in the cellar, like carrots, potatoes, parsley root, and celery root. And there was a hearty meal, served with sourdough bread that was baked once a week.
I have no idea if it really was like that, I just like to imagine that it was.
This traditional Slovak soup uses already prepared ingredients, like sauerkraut, smoked ham, and smoked sausage, to made a hearty and warming soup that requires very little prepping time.
- 2 lbs /1kg smoked ribs or ham
- 4 quarts/litres water
- 2 bay leaves
- ½ tsp peppercorns
- 2 tbsp/20g lard
- 2 onions
- 1.5oz/50g bacon
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1oz/30g dry mushrooms
- 1 tsp coarsely ground caraway
- 1 tbsp paprika
- 25oz/700g sauerkraut squeezed
- 11oz/300g klobasa 2-3 smoked sausages
- sour cream for optional garnish
Put water, whole smoked ham, bay leaves, and peppercorns in a 5 quart/litre pot. Let simmer for at least one hour, if not longer.
In a pot of at least 7 quarts/litres, melt lard and saute onions until golden. Meanwhile, soak mushrooms in water.
Chop bacon and garlic and add to onions, stirring until garlic is fragrant. Add caraway, then paprika, stir and immediately add in squeezed sauerkraut, reserving the juices. Sauerkraut can be cut shorter beforehand, for easier eating. Stir.
Add soaked mushrooms and whole klobasa. Add broth from the smoked ham, and simmer until sauerkraut is soft, about 30 minutes.
Cut up ham, fish out klobasa and slice, then add both to pot.
Use the reserved sauerkraut juice to add extra saltiness or sourness.
Serve hot with optional sour cream for garnish.