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Potato Soup (Bramborova Polevka)

Potato soup doesn’t sound very Spring-like, but that’s my latest recipe test. A couple of factors bear down heavily on how often I test recipes and what I try… 1) feeding my family (with two boys) and 2) health concerns. If I feel like I’ve had a week where I didn’t eat enough salads and vegetables, then it’s hard for me to justify to myself testing dishes heavy with meat, cream, butter. And if my 13-year-old is with me for the week, my menu becomes even more limited because he’s such a picky eater.

Finished soup in the pot... chunks of potatoes swimming in cream
with flecks of marjoram and thyme.
But he actually loves potato soup, so a weeknight dinner became an opportunity to test a recipe, too. I have at least a dozen recipes in community and other Texas cookbooks for variations of this creamy soup, but I ended up trying the one below because I had (or could fudge) all the ingredients on hand. How Czech is it? I don’t know, but Janak is certainly a Czech last name (the recipe contributor), so I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. Here it is copied straight out of the book.

Potato-Buttermilk Soup
by Mary Jo Janak
from Tempting Recipes, collected by Court Sacred Heart #797, Catholic Daughters of America, Hallettsville, TX, 2005 (4th Edition)

1 ½ pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes
2 cups chicken broth
6 slices bacon, diced
1 cup chopped onions
1 tablespoon flour
5 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon thyme
salt and pepper

Cook potatoes in broth until tender. Remove from heat; do not drain. Cook bacon until crisp. Drain. Saute onion in bacon grease until golden. Melt butter in saucepan. Add flour and stir 2 minutes. Slowly stir in buttermilk. Cook until mixture thickens. Add onions, potatoes and liquid and thyme. Heat to near boil. Salt and pepper and garnish with bacon. Serves 6.*

There's almost nothing on earth that smells more
delicious than onions sauteing in bacon fat.
Other recipes I’ve found contain everything from carrots and celery to a can of cream of mushroom soup. The classic Czech cookbook for Americans, The Czechoslovak Cookbook by Joza Brizova, first published in 1965, has no potato soup recipe. Neither does the book Best Czech Recipes by Harold Safelner, 2003. I did find one in a little book called The Littlest Czech Cookbook by Milada Williams, 2003. It’s flavored very differently using marjoram, garlic, caraway seeds, mushrooms and a mélange of vegetables - carrots, cabbage, celery and kohlrabi. These are the flavors that I think of as particular to Czech cuisine. In my hunt for Texas potato soup recipes that reflect a Czech origin, perhaps those are all the 'buzzwords’ that I should be looking for.

I've made potato soup my entire adult life almost exclusively from a recipe I got in 8th grade Home Economics in 1980, because I don't have any "family" recipes for potato soup.  But, I know the potato was an important foodstuff in what is now the Czech Republic when the majority of people (including my foremothers) immigrated. In fact, in Moravia in the 19th century, the potato was crucial to survival. There was a saying in Moravia - "potatoes and cabbage; that's all our being." The poor, especially in the more mountainous regions, heavily relied upon potatoes for day to day meals because they were relatively easy to grow. Cooks made things like dumplings, pancakes, bread and pastry dough, and, of course, soup.

After testing the unadulterated recipe above, I whirred my son's up in the blender (he doesn't like chunks of veggies.) We all garnished additionally with cheddar cheese and diced scallions like our bowls contained a liquified baked potato. The soup was actually delicious... very rich (bacon fat, butter and cream!!) with a strong, fresh herb taste. I'll be eating salads for the next couple of days to tip the nutritional scales in my favor for this week.

Potatoes cut into 1/2" chunks simmering in chicken broth
to which the thyme and marjoram were added. 
* Practical notes about the recipe - I used russet baking potatoes, which I would not use again... no flavor. I used Central Market Organics low sodium chicken broth. The recipe doesn't specify fresh or dried thyme. I used thyme and marjoram that had been fresh a few days ago from Monument Café’s garden but was now dried. I used Applegate Farms uncured bacon. 6 slices rendered 1/4 cup of bacon fat which was a disgusting amount to put in a pot of soup, so I drained all but 1 tablespoon off to saute the onions. The recipe doesn't specify how much butter to stir the flour into... I used 2 tablespoons. I didn't have buttermilk, but did have a combination of 1/2 and 1/2 and whipping cream to which I added a teaspoon of lemon juice for every cup of liquid. I also added a teaspoon of salt after all the ingredients were combined and simmering together.

"The Wallachian Potato," article by Kevin Hannan, KJT News, March 1988.
"Wallachia Kitchen," essay by Milena Habustova, Roznov, Moravia, Czech Republic, date unknown.


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