I miss everything lately. Maybe it’s the holidays, maybe it’s that I haven’t been back to my hometown since 2008. Regardless of the reason, I’ve been throwing myself a little pity party for the past week, thinking back with nostalgia on everything from the weird noises the heating system made in my old house to the easiness of hanging out at my old “local” in Dublin.
Mostly, I have been thinking about things I wish I had done with my family. I wish I’d gotten to know Grandpa Wutz better. I wish I’d learned Polish from Grandma Wutz. I wish I had spent more time with Grandpa Gallo down in his basement workshop, learning about things like pocket holes and jigsaws and how to turn scrap wood into anything imaginable.
While I’m probably going to have to teach myself about pocket holes, I can take advantage of the things I did learn from my family. I can wear scarves like Grandma Wutz did, sew a new bed for my dog using skills Grandma Gallo taught me, and I can make Grandpa’s mushroom soup.
This soup is the most traditional recipe I have — in fact, really the only one. If I was a recipe hoarder, I would hoard this one. It comes from my maternal grandfather’s family, and it’s a dish my grandmother made every year without fail as the starter to our Christmas Eve dinner. She always says it’s a meal in itself, and I agree — so much so that I started making it for Christmas Eve dinner four years ago, serving it just with some crusty bread and a little wine.
One bite and you’re transported to Central Europe. Who else would combine kielbasa, sauerkraut, ham hocks and mushrooms? I really am not positive how authentic it is, but reliable relatives tell me it dates at least to the turn of the 20th century (despite my grandma’s version containing canned mushrooms, which I think was likely a change made later for convenience).
One caveat: this is not exactly Grandma’s recipe. She always used a ham bone, and she used half the amount of sausage, along with the aforementioned canned mushrooms. I felt like I could make this my own, within reason, and I could never find a ham bone when I was looking for one.
Regardless, it’s something I did manage to learn from my family. And in a way, that’s enough.
- 4 smoked ham hocks
- 2 lbs brown cremini mushrooms, sliced
- 2 lbs smoked kielbasa, cut in half and then sliced
- 2 lbs sauerkraut, rinsed thoroughly
- Brown gravy:
- 4 Tbsp butter (or, um, bacon grease if you want to get crazy)
- The night before Christmas Eve, put your ham hocks in the largest stock pot you have. Fill the rest of the pot with water and simmer, covered, over medium-low heat for five hours or so. The broth might not look too much like broth, more like ham water, but it’ll be fine. Remove the ham hocks and put in a bowl in the fridge overnight. Chill the broth in its stockpot overnight as well.
- On Christmas Eve, skim the fat from the top of the broth and bring it back to a simmer. Meanwhile, peel the meat off of the ham hocks, trim the fat, and add the ham to the pot. Throw your dog a little bite if you’re feeling festive. Add mushrooms, kielbasa and sauerkraut and simmer for 40 minutes.
- While the soup is simmering, make the gravy. Melt butter in a cast-iron skillet over medium-heat, then add flour until the mixture is dry (you may, yes, use gluten-free flour or cornstarch here). Watching this like a hawk and stirring constantly, brown this mixture until it’s golden. Whisk in water slowly, beating out lumps, until you have a thick gravy.
- Add to the soup and stir to combine (see how much thicker and darker that broth gets? Crazy!). Serve immediately, or store in the fridge for a few days. The flavors get better with a little bit of time.