Thursday, January 7, 2010

Comfort food: Hubagrits suppe, in the style of Pruzhane

I was really bummed by the election in Massachusetts last night. It was like a mini-1994. Tomorrow is the time for action, whatever that might be. Today called for comfort food so I tried to reconstruct my grandmother's recipe for hubagrits suppe, or soup made with steel cut oats. It is similar to a beef barley soup, but steel cut oats (NOT rolled oats, the conventional oatmeal) are used as the grain and thickener. I haven't had it for about 30 years, but for me, it was comfort food par excellence.

There was a very lengthy discussion about the use of steel-cut oats in savory dishes on Elisheva Urbas' facebook page a few weeks ago, and I posted a suggested method for this soup. I couldn't find a recipe but one Anglo-Jewish cookbook had something that provided a starting point, and my father and others in his generation (70s-80s, sorry dad) described it to me in more detail than I remembered. Cooking, smelling and eating it, I felt myself back in my grandmother's immaculate (as in "Since I turned 85 I can't clean like I used to. I only pull out the stove to clean behind it once a week.") kitchen on Barnes Ave. in the Bronx, eating hot soup at her table with its plastic tablecloth. Just what the doctor ordered. Unfortunately, Amy is on a low-carb regime, Maya is a vegetarian and Harry seems to think that soup violates the inherent order of the cosmos (it is sort of his "tohu v'vohu") so I was the only who ate it. Their loss, but I think our guests on Friday evening will enjoy it.

My father's side of the family came from Pruzhane (we are of course Litvaks) in Belarus, and the other relatives remembered it in a similar manner, so here is:

Hubagrits suppe, Pruzhane-style

  • 1/2 pound small dried white lima beans
  • 1 pound beef soup meat (I used kalechel, which is boneless chuck meat, which I cut into 1 inch slices)
  • 1 pound beef soup bones with some meat on them
  • 2 quarts water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1-3 tablespoons schmaltz, or if you must, oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 6 tablespoons steel cut oats (like McCann's not quick cooking kind)
  • 1 carrot, finely diced
  • 1 parsnip, finely diced
  • 2 stalks celery, stringed and finely diced
  • 5 sprigs parsley
  • 1 large russet potato, like an Idaho
  • Salt and pepper
  1. The night before, pick over the limas for stones, rinse them, and soak overnight. (As I think Barbara Kafka points out, beans are legumes and not phantoms. It doesn't have to be overnight, just 6 to 8 hours depending on their age. You can also use the quick-soak method. Cover the beans with water in a pot and bring to the boil. Boil vigorously for a minute, cover tightly and then leave to soak for an hour.) Drain and rinse before using.
  2. Put the meat and bones in a medium pot with the water and bay leaf and bring to the boil.
  3. Turn heat down and skim off the scum as it rises.
  4. Meanwhile saute the onion in the schmaltz in a skillet until soft but not brown. Add garlic and saute a few minutes more, and add to the pot. (Swish around some of the broth in the skillet and add liquid to the pot to get all the flavor.)
  5. Simmer slowly for one hour.
  6. Add 4 tablespoons of the oats, and simmer slowly for another hour.
  7. Add the lima beans, carrot, parsnip and celery and the remaining two tablespoons of oats and simmer slowly for about 45 minutes.
  8. Peel the potato and cut into medium chunks, about half an inch. Taste the soup for salt and add salt and pepper to taste. (Be careful if you are using kosher meat since it is often already quite salty.) Simmer slowly 45 minutes more until creamy and delicious.
  9. If you wish, remove the meat from the bones, cut the large chunks of meat into bite size pieces, return to the soup, heat through and serve.

The meat: Since Jews were not peasants (my family lived in a shtetl, or small city), this is not peasant food. But it is the food of the poor, or at least the very frugal. Who else would make a soup out of a grain used primarily as animal feed? My grandmother made this with flanken which is the logical choice for any dish like this. But at $14 a pound minimum for kosher flanken (boneless -- with the bones it was $15 -- figure that one out!) there was no way I could derive the comfort that I needed from making the soup with it. So I used kalechel (about $9 boneless) and meaty soup bones (about $3 per pound). The ideal cut would be shank if you can find it. The results were great and I felt duly comforted. The important thing is to use a tough meat with lots of gelatin that will dissolve in the long slow cooking along with some bones. If I made the soup with flanken, I would probably leave the pieces whole, use 3 pounds, and serve it as a separate course afterward with horseradish, which is often what my grandmother often did. But not at these prices. Flanken has become so expensive in the past few years as chefs have discovered short ribs which is the same meat, just cut differently.

Making it in advance: Your mother should have taught you never to freeze cooked potatoes, especially when they are boiled. Their texture will be ruined completely. If you want to make a larger quantity of the soup, set aside some and freeze it before adding the potatoes, and then add them and cook until tender the day you serve. You can refrigerate this soup for a few days, but add a little boiling water and reheat it very slowly or it may scorch.


  1. I made this soup when my parent's came for dinner on Friday night, and my father said it tasted just like his mother's. However, he did say she would have used large rather than small limas, which I knew. However they did take some home for themselves and to bring to their cousins.

  2. To update this recipe a bit, I added parsnip. And readers should be glad to know that my wife has now decided that she likes this soup, and my son even eats it. He started eating soup on Kibbutz Ketura in the Negev, and found it comforting on a cold evening after a long days work. He no longer considers soup to be cosmically dubious.

  3. I found your blog while googling: savory oatmeal recipes. I found your comment with a link to this blog post on an article. Two months ago, my doctor said it was time for me to go on statins for my high cholesterol. I begged him to let me try using dietary measures first. He gave me one month. I ate oatmeal every night last month, 3 hours before bed. I also drank green tea and ate a handful of walnuts every day, but my mainstay of this diet to lower my cholesterol was definitely the oatmeal, sweetened only with good, juicy medjul dates.

    I brought my cholesterol down to within the values of my HMO, though still on the high side. I was psyched, but getting sick of oatmeal.

    I'm a Litvak too, and as you know, we aren't that fond of sweet stuff. So I decided I wanted to experiment with savory oatmeal.

    Your soup sounds wonderful and I can't wait to try it here in Efrat, in the Judean Hills. Love your blog. And I will definitely use schmaltz :-) Have some in my freezer, as a matter of fact, along with little packets of griebben, which we like to sprinkle in our chicken soup.

  4. Thanks Varda! Although the schmaltz is wonderful, you can probably also try a vegetarian version, leaving out the schmaltz as well as the meat and bones. I have been meaning to try it this way for a while. I would probably increase the veggies and brown them, and of course use some Osem powder. You might also try making a mushroom barley soup, but substitution the oats.