Now that cold weather has set in, our cooking has turned to comforting foods like soup (zuppa). Italians are acknowledged masters of the craft, with differing names for varied creations that range from brodo and minestra to zuppa and minestrone. We’re all familiar with wedding soup (minestra maritata) and pasta and bean soup (pasta e fagioli). Both of those trace their roots to southern Italy, but soups from the north also deserve our attention. Given the mountainous terrain and colder climate that engendered northern soups, it stands to reason that they are hearty and deeply flavored.
Jota is a treasured peasant soup that owes its fame to the city of Trieste, which was under Austrian rule from the 14th to the 17th century, after which it was controlled by the French until it became part of Italy after World War I. Trieste’s cuisine, like so much of Italy, is a kaleidoscope of flavors. Take jota, a thick soup in which sauerkraut is the protagonist, and the supporting culinary characters vary depending on where you live.
For instance, in nearby Gorizia, barley takes the place of potatoes. Other locales eliminate the sauerkraut, using turnips instead. And in some areas around Trieste, the dish is completely unknown, underscoring how localized Italian cooking can be.
Jota reminds me so much of pasta e fagioli — or pasta fazool, as we called it at home — which is basically beans and pasta in a tomato broth. Originally, jota was made with beans, water and onions, with maybe some stale bread thrown in to thicken the broth. There really is no formal recipe since this dish, like so many others, was born out of wit and circumstances. As people became wealthier, other ingredients were added, like pork trimmings left over from the winter butchering season.
Jota - Bean and Sauerkraut Soup
Serves 6 to 8
1-1/2 cups dried borlotti or cranberry beans, covered in cold water and soaked overnight
1/2 pound chunk bacon or pork salt, cubed
2 links Italian sweet sausage
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons tomato paste
3 cups hot meat stock
4 medium all-purpose potatoes, peeled and diced
1-1/2 cups sauerkraut, well drained
Salt and pepper to taste
Drain the beans and put them in a soup pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes, then lower the heat to simmer. Using a skimmer, skim off any foam that has formed, and cook until the beans are tender but still hold their shape. They should not fall apart. One way to tell if they are done is to fish a couple out of the water and remove the outer skins, which should slip off easily.
Drain the beans, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water, rinse the beans under cold water and set aside.
In the same pot used to cook the beans, add the bacon or salt pork and the sausage. Cook over a medium heat until the bacon and sausage begin to render their fat. Add the onion and cook until it softens. Stir in the garlic and cook for a couple of minutes.
Stir in the tomato paste and coat the ingredients well. Slowly pour in the stock and mix well. Add the potatoes and sauerkraut, and bring back to a boil. Reduce the heat, add the bay leaf, cover the pot and simmer for about 25 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.
Remove the sausage links and slice them into bite-size rounds. Return them to the pot along with the beans and reserved cooking water. Heat until the beans are hot. Salt and pepper the soup to taste.