One of the best things about travel, for me personally, is the culinary inspiration it brings. Over the past few months, I've been documenting my French-influenced cooking; and recently, on a trip through central Europe, I became quite enamored of the hearty, soulful, simple but tasty cuisine I encountered there. In my last post, I described how my wanderings left me with a hankerin' for lentils, but there was one other traditional ingredient I found myself craving consistently even after I returned to France, and that was cabbage.
I ate a lot of cabbage during my recent trip: stuffed, pickled, fermented, shredded raw into salad or baked inside a savory strudel, I couldn't get enough. You see, I really love cabbage. I know it has a reputation for being bland, mushy, and otherwise dull, but I've simply never found that to be the case. You might be wondering how I typically prepare cabbage. That's easy: in the summertime, I slip it into all manner of coleslaws. When cooking Asian soups and stirfrys, I often shred in some delicate, rippled Napa cabbage. And one of my favorite winter side dishes is a simple braise of red cabbage, apples and onions, seasoned with mustard, caraway or fennel seeds, and pretty darn irresistible alongside a mustardy sausage or tender pork chop. When I got back to Toulouse it felt like all I wanted to cook was cabbage, so you can imagine my delight at discovering this New York Times article, published shortly after my return. And the recipe that really caught my eye was this cabbage soup: full of hardy, widely-available green cabbage, tangy tomatoes and a sweet-and-sour flavor profile accented by lemon juice, brown sugar and golden raisins, it was almost as if the Times had me in mind when publishing the recipe. These were the exact flavors that I found in central Europe and that I so wanted to be able to recreate at home.
And the soup definitely didn't disappoint. I could tell just from its aroma while cooking that it was going to be good. In fact, the smells brought me right back to my childhood: my paternal grandmother, Laura, an excellent cook, made a rice-and-beef-stuffed cabbage, and my maternal grandmother, Georgia, still makes sweet-and-sour beef meatballs stewed in a zippy tomato sauce that are the highlight of every Thanksgiving. Standing over the stove and stirring this soup was like being in some magical, corners-of-my-memory kitchen that somehow channeled the formidable cooking prowess of both of these women into one steaming pot. And if that doesn't make you want to pick up a head of cabbage the next time you go to the store, I don't know what would.
Sweet-and-Sour Cabbage Soup
Adapted from the New York Times
Serves 8 - 10
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2 carrots, peeled and sliced thinly
- 1 28-oz. can whole peeled plum tomatoes
- 1 c. tomato paste
- 1/2 c. ketchup
- 1/2 c. dark brown sugar
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 c. lemon juice
- 3 lbs. green cabbage, tough outer leaves, ribs and core removed, sliced into ribbons
- 1/2 c. golden or black raisins
- Sour cream, for serving
- Chopped fresh dill or parsley, for serving
1. In a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot set over medium heat, sauté olive oil, garlic and onions along with a pinch of salt. When onions are soft and translucent, add 3 cups water, carrots, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, ketchup, brown sugar, bay leaf and another pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer and crush tomatoes lightly with a spoon. Simmer until carrots are tender, about 20 minutes. Discard bay leaf.
2. Using an immersion blender, or working in batches with a stand blender, purée soup lightly, leaving it a bit chunky. Add lemon juice, cabbage and 3 cups water. Simmer until cabbage is cooked to taste, about 1 hour for al dente cabbage or up to 2 hours for soft cabbage.
3. 10 minutes before serving, add 3 - 5 cups water to thin soup to desired consistency. Add raisins. Check soup for seasoning, adjusting if necessary. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and sprinkle with chopped herbs.