This summer I was lucky enough to travel to Slovenia for a barbecue contest. As it turns out, both barbecue and line dancing are big hobbies in Slovenia. I was invited by the US State Department and The Culinary Diplomacy Project to be a culinary ambassador for the barbecue part of the Slovenian Country and BBQ Festival, a.k.a. Wild West Fest On Fire.
The Wild West Fest is a Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS)-sanctioned Barbecue Contest. The teams came from all over Europe and were very serious about the competition, and smoking American-style barbecue. When I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, I could have been at any number of barbecue contests in the USA. But the fact that we were in Slovenia was an added bonus for me.
Slovenia wasn’t high on my bucket list, and in less than a few hours of arriving, I realized what a mistake that was. We spent most of our time in and around Ljubljana and it was one of the best trips of my life. Ljubljana—and Slovenia—is a hidden gem. I have never visited a country where the reception was as exuberant. I met so many people who I can now call friends.
The Slovenes love their food and drink and everyone was so excited to introduce us to their favorite spots. The first night we followed the advice of Ljubljana native Tanja Sustarsic, Public Engagement Specialist for the US Embassy, and met restaurateur and pig champion, Jakob Franc.
Not only does Jakob have an exceptional restaurant, but he raises a very special indigenous pig; the Krskopolje pig. His farm has 200 pigs and they are all free-range, and as he explained “that means that they eat whatever is outside, including chestnuts.” The end result is a pig with a clean, delicate, slightly nutty meat and snow-white fat.
The cold cuts and the prosciutto were exceptional, but the real reason that I went back to the restaurant twice was the traditional Jota, or cabbage stew. The recipe was based on Jakob’s family recipe and made by the restaurant cook by feel and memory.
The second night at his restaurant, he sat with us and I asked him how the stew was made. He told me that the cabbage cooks in the snow-white pork fat until it literally falls apart and a small amount of soft-cooked potato is added to the soup, eliminating the need to use any flour to thicken it. Slovenian brown beans are also cooked separately and added to the broth, the cabbage and the potatoes. A bit of smoked ham is added for flavor and crunchy pink “peppercorns” are the garnish that add both texture and flavor to this soup.
Jota is a homestyle, home-cook kind of dish, which is one reason why Jakob didn’t have a written recipe to share with me. This is not a fancy, Michelin-starred, refined kind of stew/soup, but it was remarkable in a warm, comforting way. After traveling for 24 hours and walking a mile to get to his restaurant, it was a magical first night meal and it was even better the second time around. I’ll never forget sitting outdoors on his lovely tree-lined terrace, eating this dish that was both simple and soul satisfying.
The memory of that Jota kept surfacing and I began to reverse engineer the soup based on my taste memory and what Jacob told me.
Since his entire restaurant was created around his special breed of Slovenian heritage pigs, Jakob used a lot of lardo in his version. I didn’t use any lardo; I sautéed onions in olive oil and used a very lean country ham for the pork flavor. If you want more pork fat flavor, you could use bacon, and you can always add rendered bacon grease to my recipe.
I wondered how the cabbage in his Jota was so soft and fine and one day when I was making Brats and Sauerkraut, I realized that sauerkraut could be the answer. The sauerkraut makes the soup both easy to make and provides the same body that was in the stew that I had in Slovenia. If you Google “Jota,” you will find that it is made with both fresh cabbage and sauerkraut but the texture of the end result is very different between the fresh and the sauerkraut.
I am a new fan of sauerkraut. In fact, I used to turn up my nose at sauerkraut, but it’s so good for you. A cup of sauerkraut only has 27 calories! That means that the 4 cups of sauerkraut that you add to the soup is only 108 calories (of sauerkraut) for about 12 servings. And, it is fermented which makes it even better for you—full of probiotics, vitamins C and K, and minerals including iron and potassium. So, if I can find a way to get more sauerkraut into my life, I am all for it.
To remove some of the sharp smell, you want to rinse and drain the sauerkraut. I prefer to buy sauerkraut that is packed in glass jars from Germany. The German sauerkraut is cut fine and is more delicate in flavor, and it’s easy to find in most grocery stores. I use my rice rinsing bowl to rinse the sauerkraut, making it an easy task.
Making the soup takes a little time, but it is not difficult to make especially if you use a pressure cooker. Because Jakob told me that the Jota simmered on the stove all day, I decided to use a pressure cooker to save time.
It’s 3 steps, but they are mostly hands off:
1.You boil potatoes so you can add them later to add body to the soup. You want to cook them separately and mash them. Then add them, so that they dissolve into the broth to thicken it. I like a thinner broth, so I only used 1 cup of potatoes, but if you like a thicker “stew,” you could use more.
2.Sauté the onion, garlic and country ham or bacon. Add everything except the potatoes, beans and paprika, and pressure cook it for 7 minutes using a natural release (which takes about 15 minutes).
3.Add the mashed potatoes, beans, paprika, more stock and water and simmer on the slow cooker function for at least another hour.
And, the one “secret ingredient” is all mine. It’s two tablespoons of Lipton Onion Soup Mix. The home cooks of the “Goulash Belt”— use bouillon “cubes” to season and add flavor to their simple soups. Some are specific and prefer Knorr, some call for “veggie cubes” etc., They also generally use water instead of chicken stock, so they need something extra to flavor their soup. I have never used these bouillon cubes but I keep Lipton Onion Soup Mix on hand to enhance simple soups and stews, and it is very similar in concept, but with more of an onion-y flavor.
Because this is a homey recipe, you will notice that there are many variations if you Google Jota or cabbage stew:
· Beans – If you love beans, you could add another can. The Jota that I was trying to re-create only had a smattering of beans, but some recipes use equal parts sauerkraut and beans.
· Smoked pork – You could use leftover smoked shoulder or rib meat, garlicky kielbasa (which Jakob told me they use in the winter), slab bacon, smoked bacon, any kind of ham or smoked turkey if you don’t like pork—and as much pork fat as you’d like to get it to glisten.
· Tomato paste – My broth is a little redder in color, because I used a can of diced tomatoes instead of tomato paste. Skip the diced tomatoes and add 2 tablespoons of tomato paste instead, or use 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar for acidity, and no tomato at all.
· Veggies – If you are craving more vegetables, add them. Diced carrots are always good and thin slivers of red peppers would be great as well.
· Add a drizzle of your favorite EVOO before serving.
Na Zdravje! —That’s basically cheers! in the Slovenian language
Homestyle Cabbage Stew
This is my version of Slovenian Jota (cabbage stew) based on taste memory. When I visited Slovenia this summer, my favorite restaurant in Ljubljana was Jakob Franc. The Jota was so good that I ate it twice during my trip and became friends with the owner of the restaurant. We had several conversations about how he made “the stew that sat all day on the stove…” and because there wasn’t a recipe written down for the Jota, I used my taste memory, my conversations with Jakob and watched a few Slovenian home cooks make their version of cabbage soup on You Tube.
Makes 14 Cups
New Potatoes, about ½ pound—you need one cup (steamed and mashed) cooked potatoes
1 large onion, cut in half moon slices,
5 ounces country, ham or bacon, diced
4-6 cloves of garlic
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 bay leaves.
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes.
1 38.5 ounce jar of sauerkraut, rinsed and drained about 4 cups.
8 1/2 cups chicken stock, divided
1 16-ounce can pinto or borlotti beans, drained, and rinsed (about 2 1/2 cups cooked)
1 tablespoon smoked paprika.
2 tablespoons Lipton onion soup mix, veggie or bouillon cubes
2 cups filtered water, plus more as needed
1/3 cup dry, Riesling, wine, optional.
Kosher Salt and Freshly-ground pepper to taste
1. Place potatoes in a small pot and fill with enough cold water to cover them by a few inches of water. Bring to a boil and check on them occasionally while you make the rest of the soup.
2. Meanwhile, add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of a large pot. I used a pressure cooker and sautéed the onions in the pressure cooker for five minutes.
3. Sauté and stir occasionally adding two good pinches of salt—you want the onions to be translucent but not browned. Add the garlic and sauté for 1-2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the country ham and sauté for an additional1-2 minutes, stirring occasionally. At this point, the ham and onions will be lightly browned.
4. Add 6 1/2 cups of chicken broth, bay leaves, can of diced tomato, and the rinsed and drained sauerkraut. Stir well and set the pressure cooker on high pressure for seven minutes with a natural release.
5. While the cabbage stew is cooking, check the potatoes. When a knife easily goes through the potatoes, turn off the heat and let them sit until, they are cool enough to touch. Drain the potatoes and remove the skin.
Tip: An easy way to remove the skin is to take small pieces—about ¼ sheet—of a paper towel and rub the potato while it’s still warm, the skin will come off very easily.
6. Mash them with a fork and set aside. Note: Don’t be tempted to add any olive oil or butter. You are not making mashed potatoes, you’re going to use these cooked potatoes to add body to the soup.
7. When the pressure has released, open the top of the pressure cooker and add the remaining two cups of chicken stock, smoked paprika, 2 tablespoons of French onion soup mix, or other veggie/bouillon cubes, and the beans. At this point, you can determine whether or not you think the broth should be thinner. I ended up adding 3 cups of filtered water and 1/3 cup of dry Riesling wine because I had it.
8. Change the setting on your pressure cooker to slow cooker and add the “mashed potatoes” Stir well.
9. Let the stew simmer for at least an hour or longer, adding water if necessary as the broth evaporates. When you are happy with the consistency—all the potatoes should dissolve into the broth so that you can’t really see them. Stir well, and taste the stew to determine whether or not you want to add any more water or wine, salt, and pepper.
10. Serve with crusty bread as a meal in a bowl garnished with pink peppercorns if desired and enjoy!