December 23, 2010
By Allan Stevo
On Christmas Eve in Slovakia, he who finds a fish scale under his plate, he who cuts the apple right will have a entire year of health and wealth. From village to village, family to family, the Christmas traditions vary in this highly decentralized country. These two traditions, and a few others, along with kapustnica, seem to be universally recognized in Slovakia.
In a corner of the Petrzalka section of Bratislava, nestled near the border with Austria stands a school building that once belonged to the nearby Matador plant. The school taught numerous trades. A few years after the fall of communism, the building was allowed to be used by a school that would re-open and continue an almost 400 year old tradition of education – Evanjelicke Lyceum is it’s name. Some of the people who worked in the building before the change continue to work in the building even today. You could say they came with the building.
One of those women serves lunch in the school cafeteria. The food is cooked in the kitchen of a Hungarian school in Bratislava and then delivered to the Lyceum’s kitchen as well as the kitchens of many other schools. Pani Stefka, the school’s lunch lady, does not cook those lunches. She simply offers a greeting, accepts lunch tickets, apportions the meals, and serves them to students and teachers.
Once in a while though, when it is someone’s jubillee birthday (50, 55, 60 etc), sometimes even for a namesday, or just a special event that’s when pani Stefka is asked to cook and cook she can. She cooks the most delicious Slovak food, and somehow she knows how to make it good even when she’s making it for a hundred people.
This is Pani Stefka’s Christmas Kapustnica recipe.
Every Slovak family has their own variation of this recipe. Some families will eat this on the 24th of December and will still be eating it 12 days later on the 6th of January. I can’t explain what kind of holding power this food has and why it has such a long “shelf-life.” I just know that the smoked meats and fermented cabbage seem to have an ability to last longer than other foods that don’t contain them.
The week before Christmas, the dozen or so American teachers at the bilingual Evanjelicke Lyceum get together, in a tradition started by the former director, and make a huge pot of kapustnica for the rest of the staff along with Pani Stefka. Pani Stefka’s the boss. They are her assistants. The kapustnica is prepared after classes let out one afternoon, the kapustnica cooks all night, and the next afternoon, the feasting begins. This is the staff
Christmas party centered around this pot of soup. Perhaps if you gather some family together and make a pot of this, you will see that it is not just a pot of soup.
It’s a taste of the season that it represents. It’s the company around you. It’s the warming nourishment provided by foods from another century, maybe another milenium – smoked meats and fermented cabbage.
Please consider this my Christmas gift to you as a thank you for reading this site and for the kind and encouraging comments. With the weekly writing, I have come to know much more about Slovakia than at any time prior. My thanks to you for that.
Please let me know if you give this recipe a shot. I’d be curious to hear how it went. Like with any recipe from this part of the world, it’s a little of this and a little of that, all according to what kind of taste you’re looking for and what kind of supplies are on hand. Other than the cabbage, there’s probably not a single ingredient that is necessary. Heck, Pani Stefka even makes a vegetarian version for those Americans who refuse to eat meat. Many Roman Catholic families in Slovakia will do something similar, observing their Christmas Eve fast by not adding very much meat to the soup, only a link or two of smoked sausage. For some Catholic families, the fast will begin 3 days before Christmas, to be broken only after midnight mass at the end of Christmas Eve. Some families will actually kill a pig just before Christmas and eat its food. They do not celebrate a meatless Christmas. Pani Stefka’s recipe is far from meatless.
Pani Stefka’s Christmas Kapustnica
- 1kg of Kapusta will feed 7 people.
For every 1 kg of kapusta, use the
- 4 medium to large onions
- 750g raw pork shoulder (but likely any piece of meat will be okay)
- 2 links of sausage (this taste is key, and will be apparent throughout the soup so make sure you are using quality or at least tasty sausage)
- Spice to taste – sweet paprika, caraway seeds, and at the end, when the cooking is done, you can add marjoram (If your cabbage does not already contain allspice and bay leaves, you can add a few of each of those/ pound of cabbage early in the process)
- 4 cloves of garlic finely chopped (at the end also, because the heat will dull this taste)
- Half a handful of dried plums (prunes).
- Half a handful of dried wild mushrooms.
- Add about a pound of smoked ham to a small pot, two pounds of smoked ham to a big pot, and four-five pounds of smoked ham to a really big pot
- a shredded potato (used to thicken the soup, instead of flour)
Heat oil or lard in a heated pot. Add chopped onions. Fry til the onions are between golden and brown. Stir in caraway, and sweet paprika (the ground spice) before the onions are done cooking. Add water to cover. Add pork meat. Boil until meat is tender. Remove meat, allow to cool on side, remove bones (if you chose a cut with bones), cut up into small pieces that could manageably fit on a soup spoon when eaten later. Add sauerkraut. Stir the sauerkraut in so as to avoid the difficult to manage big clumps of sauerkraut from forming. Put the meat back in. Add sausage (klobasa) whole. Before serving, you will need to remove the cooked sausage and cut them up into bit sized pieces. Add dried mushrooms. Add dried plums. Cook it for as long as you want to cook it for. Add pototoes with a half hour of cooking time left. Add marjoram. Add garlic.
Allow to sit over night. A big pot, left on a cold stove may still be warm the next morning. Another option is to leave it on very low heat (not even simmering) all night.
Before serving, pull out klobasa. Klobasa is the Slovak, Czech, and Slovenian word for “sausage.” Kilbasa seems to be a popular substitute for that word in parts of the U.S. with large Slavic population. Kilbasa is, in fact, Polish word. Click here for more examples of Slavic ways to say Sausage.
Pull out sausage and smoked meat and cut into bite sized pieces that can be easily eaten with a soup spoon . Return them to the pot and stir.
Slowly warm up the kapustnica the next day to prepare it for serving.
Serve the next afternoon with a slice of bread and a dollop of sour cream.
Allan Stevo is an author from Chicago. He writes about Slovak culture once a week and posts his columns to “52 Weeks in Slovakia” as well as sending them to a few small newspapers and magazines in the U.S. If you’ve enjoyed this column, sign up here to receive it in your inbox weekly (for the next 40 weeks), or share it with a few friends through email, facebook, twitter, or a host of other social networks using the buttons below.