A few years ago, I attended a literature conference in Trieste, Italy. James Joyce, who lived in Trieste for many years, incorporated details of the city and its inhabitants in his otherwise Irish Ulysses. One of his letters to his wife while away from Trieste in 1909 mentions a list of food he misses, bearing witness to the unique specialties of the region.
And Trieste is unique, indeed. On land situated in the far northeast corner of the Italian boot, it is a fringe town in more ways than one. Once a bustling trade crossroads between the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy, and the Western Europe, Trieste has soaked up culture in a way only a cosmopolitan border town can. The cuisine, chronicled (in English) in Fred Plotkin’s La Terra Fortunata, The Splendid Food and Wine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, features the sauerkraut, poppyseeds, stews and spices of Slavic heritage, but the beans, pasta, and polenta dishes remind the diner that she is in Italy. It’s a curious place, situated on a lovely bay and overlooked by the castle where Rilke wrote some of his most marvelous poetry, and almost seems a world to itself.
So when a friend gave me some home-cured pancetta and a sample of Ayers Creek Farm borlotto lamon beans, I knew exactly how I’d put them to work: La Jota, the Triestine bean and sauerkraut soup. My latest batch of sauerkraut was ready, and I was ready to go. Borlotto lamon beans are the crown jewel of Italian beans — the texture and flavor are reminiscent of chestnuts, and they are meaty and delicious in soups. Plus, tomorrow is Joyce’s birthday (born February 2, 1882), and he’s on my mind a lot lately, so I thought I’d celebrate Trieste in his honor.
La Jota is not immediately visually appealing, but it is one of the great peasant dishes of the region, and the taste is fantastic. The sauerkraut perks up the beans and potatoes, gently flavored by the ham and pancetta. I found myself using it as a bean dip with crackers when I wasn’t eating it as a soup.
There are as many recipes for Jota as there are Triestine cooks, but Fred Plotkin’s recipe looked the best in terms of texture and balance of flavors. I did substitute a few things, including a smoked ham shank for the boiled ham or smoked pork butt called for by Plotkin. I used a boiled ham in the recipe test, and it was pretty much stripped of flavor by the end of the cooking, and the small pieces of rubbery ham made it more difficult to mash the beans and potatoes. Plus, I prefer the slightly stronger taste of smoked ham, and a shank allows you to strip more meat of the bones than a ham hock.
It is not a simple soup, as far as soups go, but it is worth it to resist your desire just to throw everything in the pot at once and call it a day. There are other Jota recipes on the internet if you’d like to do that. This one is a bit more fussy, and the satiny-smooth, deeply flavored results show it.
The cooking takes place in three shifts, first an hour-long shift of cooking of the beans and potatoes, then a mashing and sauerkraut cooking phase, then a final simmering to combine the flavors. I found that a lazy cook (not mentioning any names) will make the preparation much more onerous if the directions aren’t followed in the order presented. Just sayin’.
La Jota: Bean and Sauerkraut Soup
Adapted from Fred Plotkin’s La Terra Fortunata, The Splendid Food and Wine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia
Makes a big pot of soup
Equipment Note: you’ll need a large stock pot, a large pot for cooking the potatoes, a food mill or food processor, and a large skillet or chef pan that can hold 6-8 cups. Consider yourself warned.
- 1 lb. dried borlotto lamon beans (substitute cranberry beans or pinto beans)
- 1 piece smoked ham shank
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 large russet potatoes
- 1 lb. fresh sauerkraut, or the best quality canned sauerkraut (rinsed if too salty)
- a few ounces pancetta, finely diced
- 1 garlic clove, mashed
- 1 T. bacon grease, lard or olive oil
- salt and freshly ground pepper
Soak the beans until no dry core remains, anywhere from 4 to 12 hours, depending on the age of the beans you are using. Drain and add to a large stockpot when they are ready.
Cook the beans. Add the ham shank, bay leaf, and some pepper, then cover the beans with only about an inch of water. Bring to a gentle boil, then simmer for about 1 hour, or until the beans are soft and almost creamy.
Cook the potatoes. *At the same time as you’re cooking the beans*, peel the potatoes and cook them whole in salted water to cover in another large pot. They should take about 30 minutes to simmer. Keep potatoes in cooking water when done.
Fry up the sauerkraut. Once the potatoes have started, fry the pancetta in a large skillet with the bacon grease and the garlic. Once the pancetta is brown and slightly crisp, add the sauerkraut and cook until it picks up the flavors of the aromatics, about 5 minutes or so. Set aside.
Prepare the bean mash. “When the beans are tender but still intact” (Plotkin), remove half of them and place in food mill or food processor with a bit of the liquid. Mash/process until you have a thick paste. Add to the sauerkraut skillet and blend well.
Prepare the potatoes. Save the potato liquid. Remove the largest potato and mash it with the food mill or a potato masher. Add this mash to the sauerkraut skillet as well. Cut the remaining potatoes in 2-inch chunks and add to bean pot.
Remove the bay leaf and the ham shank. Take off meat from ham shank in bite-sized shreds and return it to the pot.
Add the sauerkraut mixture to the beans. Check the liquid level. It should resemble a thick soup. Add a bit of the potato liquid, and cook for 45 more minutes to blend the flavors, adding potato liquid if it becomes too thick for your tastes. It is important to stir regularly, so the bottom does not burn. Once the soup is done, taste and add salt if necessary. The sauerkraut has salt, so it might be necessary to add just a bit.
Top individual servings with a drizzle of olive oil and freshly ground pepper.
Better the next day. Can be frozen.