Last weekend we were introduced to jota at Autre Monde, a wonderful little Mediterranean restaurant in Berwyn, Illinois, a Chicago suburb.
Jota is a hearty Italian peasant soup. You don’t get more peasant than this soup, Fellow FoodBeest. Northern Italian peasant perhaps, but totally peasant nonetheless. Beans. Ham hock. Sauerkraut. Potatoes. And let’s face it, Fellow FoodBeest, I come from pretty strong Eastern European peasant stock.
Jota (pronounced “yota”) is a dish that originated in Trieste in the northeastern-most corner of Italy, a town practically nestled in Slovenia. The use of sauerkraut gives away that the soup, while Italian, was heavily influenced by the surrounding Austro-Hungarian world.
It is not the world’s most visually exciting soup. You might even say it’s not very attractive. You probably won’t see this soup created on “Top Chef.” But one taste and you know you’ve found a new friend. It has a deep, complex flavor and it’s one of the most satisfying foods you’ll ever eat on a cold, damp winter day.
This recipe is a composite of several that are out there, including one from Emeril Lagasse and another from Fred Plotkiin. The method for making this soup involves more than throwing a bunch of things into a pot with water and turning on the burner. The preparation is a little complex, but it insures a layered result.
The recipe makes a sizable amount of creamy, hearty and filling soup. It improves overnight and freezes well.
What You Need to Make Jota
1 lb. dried borlotti beans (substitute cranberry beans or pinto beans)
1 medium onion finely chopped
2 minced garlic cloves
1 smoked pork chops or ham shank (8-12 oz) cut up into 1-inch pieces
2 bay leaves
2 medium russet potatoes
1 lb. fresh sauerkraut, rinsed and squeezed dry
1 t sugar
1 t whole black peppercorns
3 ounces pancetta, finely diced
1 mashed garlic clove
2 T. bacon grease or olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper
How to Make Jota
Place the beans in a large bowl. Cover them with cold water by two inches and soak for four to 12 hours. Drain.
In a large pot, heat the oil or bacon grease. Add the onions and cook until soft, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and one bay leaf and cook, stirring briefly, maybe 30 seconds.
Add the pieces of ham or smoked pork shank and cook, turning, for 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the beans and enough water to cover (6 to 7 cups) and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender, about 1 hour.
In the meantime, peel the potatoes, cut them into 2-inch pieces and put them in boiling salted water. Cook about 15 minutes, then turn off the heat and let them continue to sit in the hot water.
Remove about half the beans from the soup and smash them with the back of a spoon or a potato masher. Remove half the potatoes from their water and mash them with the potato masher. Add the puree of both the beans and the potatoes to the soup pot. The soup will become very thick. Add the rest of the potato pieces and about a cup of the water in which you boiled the potatoes to thin the soup again and continue cooking for another 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet or chef’s pan, cook the pancetta in about a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat until the fat is rendered, about 6 minutes. Add the sauerkraut, 1 cup of water, the remaining bay leaf, the sugar, peppercorns, and salt. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until tender and aromatic, about 30 minutes.
Add the sauerkraut mixture to the soup and stir well to combine. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
Remove from the heat and discard the bay leaves. Ladle into deep bowls.
Grind freshly ground black pepper over the top and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Serve.