Food & Drink

Kapusniak and Zurek: Two 'Old World' Polish soup recipes that will become new favorites

Kapusniak has become a staple comfort foods for the winter months. (Joshua Tibbetts)
Kapusniak has become a staple comfort foods for the winter months. (Joshua Tibbetts)
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If you’ve been following my articles, by now you have probably picked up that I’m into Eastern European, Slavic foods. This isn’t really an accident. My family are Finnish Swedes and Germans from Minnesota. Back in high school it was cool to hop into a used car and try to make a run to Chicago and back. Leave at last bell of school, make it back before the next morning bell. Typical Midwestern cheap thrills. Sure beat tipping cows.

The real gem in those attempts at angst management was that time I got dragged into the Polish neighborhood. My pal Kevin, who spent his younger years there, saw the stop on the El Train, and made us get off. “We gotta get some SOUP!” I had no idea what was going on, so I just tagged along.

We stumbled into this whitewashed deli. Most people were buying sausages. Nobody spoke English. It was an awakening for me. Video games back then were more like “Donkey Kong” or “Galaga,” but that experience of “otherness” was on that same level of unreal fantasy. I’d never been in a place in Iowa where nobody spoke English. It was surreal. Kevin knew how to ask for soup and pierogies. So we had soup and pierogies. And holy hell, that soup changed my life. It was a kielbasa and sauerkraut soup, what I later came to know as Kapusniak. This was the start of a lifelong love affair with the Slavic food culture of Eastern Europe. I fell down that rabbit hole a while ago and decided it was a cozy place to burrow into.

When I became a chef a few years later, I did the homework and found out that Kapusniak is an extremely simple combination. It became one of my staple comfort foods for the winter months. Kielbasa, kraut, some vegetables. No problem. Still, I spent years trying to recreate that corner store deli soup from Chicago. Maybe my memory was biased and making the past taste better than it was.

Eventually, I found that the tricks to make it well were quite simple. Good broth, good kielbasa, good kraut. Put some color on the vegetables by frying them in a pan before cooking them. Ordinary stuff, just give it a little extra, right? Homemade broth from chicken bones. Honest, fermented sauerkraut. A good, smoked kielbasa from a real meat market. I dig the kielbasa from my pal Steven’s place in Czech Village: Anvil Meat Market. Honestly, when they make Ukranian sausages, I go for those instead when I’m making Kapusniak. They have a little more coarseness in the tooth, and a little more of a spiced “bite.” The broth of the soup is going to leach a lot of flavor into the “marriage.” The coarse texture of the Ukranian will hold up in the finished soup really well — not like commercial “kielbasa,” those things are just overgrown hot dogs.

Moving back to Iowa, I found that people were calling this Polish sausage soup Old World Soup. West Slavs share a lot of culture, from Poland to Czechia and Slovakia, and you find this a lot in culinary traditions. It makes me wonder if the “Old World Soup” was a Czech immigrant memory of Kapusniak, or something similar.

I periodically look up variations on recipes. Traditional recipes tend to have a “this or that village” or “this neighborhood or that” subtlety — slight variations. So there’s rarely a single, perfect authentic recipe for anything. That’s the fun part. The more you make something and dial it in to your family’s personal taste, the closer you get to your own legacy of authenticity.

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In that research, I discovered that there was a second Polish sausage soup — Zur or Zurek. It has the same basic idea as Kapusniak, but it is jacked up with a sourdough starter and winter root vegetables. On paper, it looks like the root recipe for Kapusniak (pun intended.) Replace the sauerkraut with a sourdough culture. Replace the potatoes with celery root and parsnips. Now it feels like we are getting closer to historical origins. Winter root vegetables are largely overlooked these days in America, having been replaced by the ubiquitous potato.

You remember last April, when everyone was baking sourdough bread? Well, Zurek uses the sourdough starter.

Like all great Slavic soups, this one considered a hangover cure because of the soured element to them — a culture, a ferment — something to settle an unbalanced gut. Borscht, Okroshka, Solyanka, Zurek. These are some of my favorite things.

Kapusniak or Zurek? Hey, I love them both. The old and the new. A recipe that is a few centuries older doesn’t make it better, it just makes it different.

So here are two different recipes for Old World Polish soup. Compare and contrast. If you’re anything like me, I feel that you’ll find them to be like two children. They are both different, and they are both your favorite.

Chef Tibbs, also known as Joshua “Tibbs” Tibbetts, is a Cedar Rapids native who has been cooking as a professional chef for 28 years. He now is in the banquet kitchen at DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex.

Kapusniak

The easy, new world version.

6 ounces bacon

12 ounces kielbasa sausage, sliced into rounds

2 medium onions (about one pound each), diced

4 carrots (about 1/2 pound), diced

3 gloves garlic, minced

2 quarts chicken broth

4 red or yellow potatoes (1 1/2 pounds each), cubed and covered in cold water

1 tablespoon paprika

1 cup sauerkraut

1/2 cup sauerkraut juice

2 tablespoons cornstarch (optional), plus 2 tablespoons cold water

Cut the bacon into small chunks.

Fry the bacon in a Dutch oven, or sturdy 2 gallon stock pot.

Transfer the cooked bacon to a large bowl, leaving the hot rendered fat in the pot

Sear the kielbasa in the same pot until browned. Transfer to the holding bowl.

Sear the onions until they get some brown on them, then transfer to holding bowl.

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Drain the water off the potatoes, then add them and carrots to the Dutch oven. Stir frequently until they get some nice dark brown spots, then add the garlic. When the garlic becomes aromatic and just begins to get some brown color on it, add the paprika. Stir for about 20 seconds, then cover with the broth and turn the heat down to a low simmer.

Keep an eye on the pot. Test the potatoes and carrots every few minutes with a fork. When they seem nicely softened, add the reserved bacon, sausage and onions. Turn the heat down to a low steep. Also add the sauerkraut and it’s juices.

Let everything gently steep together for 5 or 10 minutes. Season it to taste with salt and pepper. You know it has enough salt when you can taste those savory flavors on the back of your tongue.

That bacon and sausage fat is a really big part of the flavor. At this point you have some options. You can cool the soup down and skim the fat off. That’s not my favorite. That fat is the flavor, so I like to keep it in. You can ignore it, and let it float on top of the soup. But the best way to address it is to make a slurry of cornstarch and water — 2 tablespoons of cornstarch stirred into 2 tablespoons of water. Then immediately mix it into the warm soup. At a dull simmer, it will bind the fat together with the broth. This gives the soup some body (like a thin gravy) but more importantly binds the big-flavor fat across the whole soup. That’s what I signed up for, right there.

Source: Joshua Tibbetts

Zurek

The trickier, Old World version

For the sourdough starter:

1 quart Mason jar

1/2 cup rye flour, plus another 1/2 cup for later

2 cloves garlic

2 bay leaves

For the soup:

6 ounces bacon

12 ounces white Polish sausage (or uncooked bratwurst)

2 onions, diced (1 pound)

3 medium carrots (8 ounces)

1 celery root (1 pound)

1 large parsnip (8 ounces)

2 teaspoons dried marjoram

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice (optional)

2 quarts chicken broth

1 tablespoon prepared horseradish

This process is just like Kapusniak, except for the starter. It’s a very quick recipe, except for the sourdough starter. The starter takes a couple minutes to make, but then it needs to work it’s magic for 3 to 6 days.

For the starter, you need to sterilize the Mason jar. Fill it with boiling water, let it rest a minute and the dump that water out. Add 1/2 cup of the rye flour, the garlic cloves and the bay leaves. Fill the jar with 2 cups of cold water. Seal the top with a clean chunk of T-shirt or a few layers of cheesecloth, sealed with a rubber band. This time of year, I like to leave it next to a heat vent. We are trying to attract sourdough yeasts here, and they really thrive at body temperature. In the dead heat of summer, this is really easy. In January, it takes a little more effort to keep it warm. Letting it hang out next to the heat register seems to do the trick, though. Let it be, you don’t need to stir it or disturb it. You’ll see the solids from the rye flour sink to the bottom, and a foamy layer should build up on the top. That is a good thing

After 3 days, it will want to be “fed.” Peel a corner back from the cover cloth and give it a sniff. It should smell sharp and heady, like an aged cheese. Add another 1/2 cup of rye flour and stir it in a little bit. Cover it back up and let it rest for 3 more days.

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On the sixth day, make the soup. It basically follows the same process as the Kapusniak. If you’re using an uncooked sausage like the white Polish, you want to gently poach it first in the chicken broth. Once it’s cooked, slice it into rounds.

Fry the bacon, then sausage slices, then onions in the pot, setting them each aside as you go. Then fry the carrots, celery root and parsnip in the pot until it browns a bit, cover it with the chicken stock and simmer until vegetables are tender. When the vegetables are soft, add the meats and onions back to the pot.

Strain the solids out of your starter. You want the liquids for the soup. The solids can go in your compost. Add this liquid to the soup and simmer it gently for 10 minutes or so. The neat thing about that starter juice is that it will thicken up your soup a bit, give it a creamy consistency. Which makes it an absolutely perfect soup for a bread bowl.

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Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.