PRUNES in cabbage soup (kapustnica) mean that Christmas has arrived.
photo: Zuzana Habšudová
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, 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 specialty, 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 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 and juicy.
Some Slovaks eat the soup with boiled potatoes, others with bread on the side. Mulled wine is a nice accompaniment.
- with Miroslav Karpaty
For four to six people
1 kilo sauerkraut
1 kilo 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