Once upon a time, I lived in Czechoslovakia, with the family of my once fiancée. They were a very nice family, with whom I shared only one thing in common—a love of their favorite progeny. I didn’t speak their language, have an aptitude for medical science, or any hope of medaling in an Olympic sport. They were a family of Slavic gods: tall, athletic, attractive, intelligent, and able to eat vast quantities of food in single sittings. They also did things like run dozens of miles up and down mountains like billy goats after rowing the length of the Czech-German border. Being quite short and averse to waddling through the stinging-nettle-covered countryside, I stayed at home a lot with Bubi and the children. Bubi was the matriarch of the family, and blessedly shorter than me. (True, this was largely the result of a bout of childhood polio, but I was still willing to think of it as a commonality. Desperate, I know.) I adored Bubi, with her wispy white hair and clear blue eyes, and her willingness to talk at me in Czech. Bubi cooked every gargantuan meal on a tiny stove in a tiny kitchen just off her room, turning out one marvelous dish after another, day after day. I was fascinated by the quantity and delighted by the quality, but my favorite thing of all was Bubi’s soup. Hardly a day went by without soup being served for lunch, each delicately flavored yet filling, and topped with thin croutons made from yesterday’s bread. Her grandson, well versed in folk tales, remarked that she could “make soup from a stone.”
As Bubi and I got to know each other over the years, I became braver about spending time in the kitchen while she worked her magic. We had some quiet understandings, and my Czech had developed to the point that we could at least talk about food. On my forays into town, I would procure items that Bubi craved but was occasionally denied by her health-conscious doctor daughter. Her requests were simple: beer, if she had a “bit of indigestion,” and butter. She recognized me as a fellow traveler in fats. I learned that every one of Bubi’s soup recipes were based on a very simple butter/flour roux, to which she added whatever was leftover from the previous evening’s meal. The roux meant that her soups were always somewhere between a broth and a cream, and it was hard to pin down exactly what was in them. When I first met her, she was well into her eighties, and had long ceased to use recipes, if she ever had to begin with. One memorable lunch, I was surprised to find an actual chunk of potato in my non-potato soup, but happily loaded it onto my spoon. Bubi, seeing this, popped out of her chair with a speed I wouldn’t have thought possible for a lame octogenarian, and knocked the spoon out of my hand. Unable to imagine what sort of cultural transgression I had committed, and unable to decipher her rapid-fire Czech, it was eventually explained to me that I was about to eat the “salt” potato. Bubi inadvertently taught me that a soup too heavily seasoned may be corrected by adding a potato to absorb the salt. Bubi passed away in 2004, and I regret that I didn’t spend more time in the kitchen with her. I didn’t keep the fiancée, but the knowledge base from Bubi gave me the confidence to concoct my own soups, and to improve upon my own great grandmother’s.
Unfortunately Bubi didn’t share any secrets to working with lentils (called “čočka” in Czech). Nor did Gima. Which is problematic, because I believe I have some sort of mental block that keeps me from achieving success with dried legumes. Gima’s recipe starts out with soaking dried lentils overnight. I’m not sure if there have been significant advances in dried pulse technology in the ensuing decades since Gima penned At Home on the Range, but I woke up to lentils that resembled maggots, bloated from feasting on gangrenous flesh. Thinking gangrene—rather than, perhaps more accurately, germination—I tossed them and started fresh. Lentils require “picking over.” I am not thrilled about working with a food product that may contain a percentage of non-edible items such as stones, pits, or bugs, and Gima has already had me render suet on more than one occasion. Thankfully, my lentils were free of inedibles, and I proceeded with the recipe, which resulted in a watery, flavorless liquid with a quantity of mushy lentils and carrot nubbins at the bottom, although the addition of sautéed kielbasa slices (“2 frankfurters cut in thin slices”) improved it greatly. Adding stock and a bay leaf, along with some curry powder and a touch of ginger makes the soup less apocalyptic. A poached egg added to each bowl makes it downright luxurious.
If you’re tired of the third-world feel of a steaming bowl of lentils, this sauerkraut soup makes for an interesting change of pace. I love this, and I don’t even like sauerkraut, or have a reason to cook for a Czech any longer.
MIHLA’S SAUERKRAUT SOUP
Bring 24 ounces of sour cabbage to a boil in 1.5 quarts of water or chicken stock. Season with 1 tsp. salt, 1tsp. vinegar, and 1tsp. sugar. Mix 2 tsp. flour and 1 cup of heavy cream; press through a sieve into the soup.
Sauté half a chopped onion in two tablespoons of lard or bacon grease, then add thin slices of kielbasa to the softened onions; season with paprika. Once the onions have turned just golden, add to the soup. Depending on your own tastes, experiment with adding caraway seeds (which I personally hate), or apple for added complexity.