A pickle soup of your own

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Polish sausage at Polish Deli (COURTESY)

I once gave a friend of mine a Vosges Mo’s chocolate bar made of milk chocolate with bacon pieces in it. He said, “I like chocolate and I like bacon. I didn’t know I was supposed to like them together.” That is sort of the feeling I had about Polish pickle soup. I like soup, I just didn’t know I would like it with pickles. But I’ve had dill-pickle-flavored potato chips, so how bad could it be?

My first encounter with Polish pickle soup, zupa ogorkowa, was last summer in Detroit. I tasted it at lunch with my father, but thought it was too hot to eat on that humid summer day. I actually made it for the first time last winter, and it was quite lovely on a Las Vegas winter evening. The soup is a base of chicken broth, potatoes, Polish pickles in a jar and variations on this theme. It can have milk or cream, or be topped with sour cream. Some recipes call for turnips or carrots. In some families, it was made with a tomato base. It is a very simple, inexpensive and hearty soup. All recipes decidedly stressed that authentic Polish pickles were needed.

The problem is that it is now over 100 degrees daily. Could I make this soup like vichyssoise? The classic soup of potato, leek and chicken broth is typically eaten cold. My friend confirmed that in fact, the last batch I gave her she ate cold. She loved it.

Off I headed to Polish Deli (5900 W. Charleston Blvd., 259-2008). This small market in a nondescript strip mall is chock full of Polish specialties. The owners, Joanna and Z. Pelko, are from a town outside of Warsaw. They came to Las Vegas almost 12 years ago when Z., a Cirque Du Soleil performer the Strip, was transferred here. They saw an opportunity to serve the Las Vegas Polish community, which is estimated at about 12,000 people.

Most of the packaged and processed foods are from Poland, and some are from Polish companies in Chicago. They feature syrups, canned fruits and vegetables, soup and sauce mixes, pickled vegetables, candy, soft drinks and all manner of Polish staples.

Joanna says their largest sellers are pierogi and kielbasa. Pierogi are dumplings that can be filled with sweet or savory fillings. They come in more than a dozen flavors, including spinach, cheese and potato, sweet cheese and plum. And they have three kinds of kielbasa, a Polish smoked sausage with varying intensities of smokiness. Kiszka, a blood sausage made with barley or buckwheat, is also available. I like the veal and pork hot dogs. These natural-casing sausages have a snap when you bite into them. The veal hot dogs are very mild, seasoned well and not overly salty; the pork hot dogs are more seasoned, but with the same snap. They also have many kinds of ham, smoked meats and sausages, all from Chicago.

I asked Joanna which pickles are best for soup, and she showed me the Cracovia brand. Below is the recipe for the soup, one so easy that one website showed a 3-year-old making it. Substitutions can easily be made. It can be vegan, vegetarian or meat-based.

POLISH PICKLE SOUP

Serves 6 to 8

1 48-oz. large box of chicken or vegetable broth (or 3-4 cans of broth). When using vegetable broth, choose one that is not too sweet. The one I tried had pear juice and a lot of carrot and the sweetness fought the pickle flavor.

2 ½ lbs. peeled potatoes, cut into half-inch chunks

1 jar (about 30 oz.) Polish pickles grated, reserve the juice

1 large onion (optional). You can also use parsnip, carrot or celery.

1 cup milk, cream or sour cream

1 bunch fresh dill

2 tablespoons flour

Salt and pepper to taste

Bring broth to a boil. Add potatoes and onions and boil until tender. Add grated pickles and the juice from the jar. Cook until heated through for five minutes. Add salt, pepper and dill to taste.

Options: For vegan soup, just serve hot or cold. To add dairy to the hot soup, mix a half-cup of hot soup with flour and the milk, cream or sour cream. Add back to soup slowly while stirring to thicken. For cold soup, chill and then process the soup in a blender or food processor, with or without dairy. Top with a dollop of sour cream and fresh dill. Enjoy with a fresh salad, some buttered rye bread and fruit, and you have a light summer meal.