There are many foods associated with the Christmas season: gingerbread cookies, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, razzelberry dressing. But in my family, one dish rises above them all: sauerkraut.
My grandfather has been preparing a traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner for as long as anyone can remember. The entire meal is filled with symbolism and significance. The dinner includes no meat, just simple dishes representing the “four corners of the earth,” that being forest, sea, orchard, and field.
It’s also loaded with sauerkraut.
There are pierogies filled with sauerkraut, noodles with sauerkraut, succotash (lima beans with sauerkraut) and sauerkraut topped with sauerkraut, garnished with a hint of sauerkraut. But the infamous star of the sauerkraut show, and perhaps the entire meal, is the sauerkraut soup.
It’s a different kind of soup. It’s sour. It’s bitter. It’s sometimes a little rough on the digestive tract. I think it’s as much as a tradition in my family to joke about the soup as it is to eat it.
But sauerkraut soup has a special meaning to me.
As a boy, every Autumn I would follow my grandfather up and down wooded Pennsylvania hillsides in search of the elusive Popinki, or honey mushroom.
The mushrooms that we were hunting were an essential ingredient in the sauerkraut soup, and an important part of the entire Christmas Eve dinner. They alone represented the forest portion of the meal.
Wild forest mushrooms are an important part of Polish cuisine outside of just Christmas. My grandfather had learned where to hunt Popinkies from the generation before him. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, he was subtly passing this knowledge down to me during what I thought was a just a fun adventure in the woods.
Sometimes we returned home with what seemed like enough mushrooms to feed an army. Other trips required a stop at the market to help fill our quota.
I usually forgot about the Popinkies after our outings until they reappeared in my soup at Christmas Eve dinner. Unlike some of my cousins who immediately would start gagging at the sight of it, I didn’t mind the taste that much. Perhaps the sense of pride that came along with knowing that I played a role in the soup helped mask the flavor.
My family has gone through a lot over the years. I now live far from home, and my grandfather isn’t mobile enough to go mushroom hunting. But one thing that has remained constant is our Christmas Eve dinner complete with sauerkraut soup.
It will forever remind me of tradition and the warmth of family gathered at Christmastime.
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1/2” cubes
.75 oz dried mushrooms
32oz sauerkraut with juice
6 cups + 1 cup water
4 tablespoons grass fed butter or ghee
1 bay leaf
In a small saucepan combine the dried mushrooms and one cup of water. Simmer on low heat for about ten minutes.
Drain the mushrooms, reserving the liquid. Rinse the mushrooms well, and then roughly chop them. Strain the liquid through a paper coffee filter to remove any grit.
In a dutch oven, melt the butter or ghee over medium high heat. Add the onion and sautée until it is translucent.
Add in the mushrooms and their liquid and cook for a few minutes.
Finally add the sauerkraut and juice, potatoes, water, bay leaf and pepper corns. Bring to a simmer and cover. Cook until the potatoes are tender, about 35-40 minutes.
Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with fresh parsley.