This recipe seemed to be the most fitting choice to start this blog off. Much as I’ve come to have a deep and abiding love for my hometown (despite an entire youth of wanting nothing more than to get the hell out), I have grown to sincerely enjoy and look forward to eating this weird and hard-to-love soup. But I’ll tell you why it took so long to get there.
This mushroom soup is traditionally part of the valia, the Slovak Christmas Eve meal, which is how I first encountered it. (I’ll go into more detail about the history, and painful reality, of the valia as it pertained to my youth in another post. But for now, suffice it to say, I enjoyed those dinners in about the same way that any little kid enjoys a tradition that demands they sit down, shut up and eat funny tasting things.)
This soup–a little sour, with barely even a broth to speak of–certainly finds a happy home on that most auspicious of tables. As a child, partaking in those valia dinners constituted torture–not a single family member was allowed to leave the table (even to pee!) until my surly grandfather got up from his chair. And prior to the start of the meal, our family partook in a ritual for which I still can find no religious purpose which involved a benediction of a cross MADE OF HONEY drawn on my forehead not to be cleaned away until Christmas morning. And then they made me eat this soup. I can remember being near tears as my father whispered in my ear “If you don’t at least take a few bites, Santa Claus won’t bring you any presents tonight.” Ohhh, this soup and I–we go way back.
Miraculously, overtime I actually developed a fondness for this most weird and hard-to-love soup. I find myself craving the sour-yet-savory thinness of the broth, the earthiness of the mushrooms and the pleasing textures of the cabbage and peas. (Still the only dish in which I will willingly eat peas, though. And they’re not even technically required for the dish, they’re just a frill.)
Because this soup requires very little fat (a negligible amount to make a simple roux), it also freezes really well because it does not separate. I like to make a whole batch, then freeze a few portions in well-sealed tupperware for some truly lazy, desperate-for-comfort-food kinda nights. When stored correctly, this soup will keep for several months. And even if it doesn’t, it comes together in like, 20 minutes, so there’s no excuse not to make this all year round.
This is the pre-face I’m going to find myself giving pretty much every recipe I post here, but here goes: This is one of those recipes that everyone claims their grandma does better than everyone else’s grandma. So my family’s version is merely a variation on a classic theme. (In fact, I learned the peas thing from an exchange student from Slovakia at my high school’s International Food Night. You bet your ass he and I bro’d out over the fact that literally no one else at the event wanted to eat this soup, having been overshadowed by the Korean students barbecue. I can’t remember his name, but thanks Really Nice Slovak Kid!) You’ll find other options and additions that I’ve seen used or that I’ve come across during my research in brackets and italics. And I wholeheartedly welcome your comments or correspondence about what your family does differently, or how I totally committed sacrilege.
Here’s the recipe as it was presented in it’s original form, the Anniversary Slovak-American Cook Book, originally published in 1952.
Sour Mushroom Soup
1 lb. fresh mushrooms [I choose to use a bit more than that, and to mix both baby portobella and shiitake mushrooms, sliced to about 1/6″.]
1 T. butter
1 t. flour [I use a little more.]
Sauerkraut juice, to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 t. finely chopped onion
1/2 – 2/3 bag of sauerkraut (approx. 2 cups) — use this bag to strain away juice
1 c. fresh shucked peas, or 1/2 bag of frozen peas (If using frozen, don’t thaw or pre-cook, or they will turn too mushy way too fast.)]
Wash mushrooms and cook in 1 quart of water until tender. Strain. (Save water.) Run mushrooms through food chopper. [I choose to simply slice them in advance.] Add sauerkraut juice to mushroom water. [Add] salt and pepper and bring to a boil.
Brown flour in butter until light brown, add onion and brown. [It is at this point that I would add the strained sauerkraut and sauté with the roux and onion until the sauerkraut browns and the onions are translucent. The sauerkraut will brown faster than the onions, so waiting until the onions brown would woefully dehydrate the kraut, so keep an eye on it.] Add 1/4 cup water and bring to a boil and stir. Strain. [I choose not to add water here (and therefore also not to strain), because of the flavors developed by the kraut, but Sophie Gresko from Whiting, Indiana says so, so listen to her if you choose to go kraut-less.] Add contents along with mushrooms and simmer for a couple of minutes. [Taste. Add salt and pepper as necessary. If you added peas, don’t overcook, or they’ll get mushy!]
Enjoy with a good, crusty rye or sourdough for dipping. Tune in next post for a little more info on the cookbook from whence this recipe comes!
Na zdravie paisano!