Sunday, January 16, 2011

The humble cabbage

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
- Salt
- Pepper
- 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, pur
ée 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.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Lentils for my new year

Over the Christmas holiday, I was lucky enough to be able to travel to Austria, Czech Republic and Hungary, pretty much eating my way through my wanderings. As an Ashkenazi Jew, and therefore someone with roots in this region of the world, I immediately felt a connection to the cuisine I found in these countries: warming, long-cooking dishes like goulash, stuffed cabbage and a wide variety of soups, as well as a mind-boggling array of delicious pastries, many stuffed with sweetened poppyseeds, a popular (and my favorite) filling for hamentaschen cookies, traditionally made during the Jewish holiday of Purim.

It being the end of the year, though, the one dish that you could find anywhere and that was advertised everywhere (especially on New Year's Day) was lentil soup. All over the world, it's traditional to eat legumes on the first of January: they symbolize money, and so are eaten in the hopes of assuring a financially propitious year. We Americans might be most familiar with Hoppin' John, a dish of blackeyed peas stewed with pork that's commonly consumed in the south, but all over Europe, including Italy, Germany, and the central European countries I visited, lentils are the number one New Year's Day meal.

I didn't actually eat any lentil soup in Budapest, the city where I rang in 2011, but the little green legume lodged itself in my mind, because I found myself craving it ever since I returned to Toulouse. I found the perfect occasion to prepare a lentil dish when my birthday, the 9th of January, rolled around. As anyone who follows this blog knows, on my birthday my preferred means of celebration is to fix a big, inexpensive meal and invite all my friends over. Usually the celebration is a porkfest (and, incidentally, pork is another auspicious food oft prepared for the New Year's meal). But although pork butt is cheap, my funds this year were even more limited than usual, having just returned from a vacation and all, and I set my sights on a meal that though still tasty, would cost me almost nothing. And what fits the bill for that? Why, legumes, of course. So I whipped up some hummus, an old standard of mine, and I improvised a lentil salad made with roasted red peppers and shallots. I felt it was appropriately French--they eat a lot of lentils over here, especially the little green ones which I suppose best symbolize money--and what's more, my buddies seemed to enjoy it, too:

Lentil Salad with Potatoes, Red Peppers and Shallots
Serves 8 - 10 as a side dish


- 2 cups green lentils, rinsed
- 4 medium new potatoes, scrubbed and cut into a medium dice
- 1 red bell pepper
- 3 shallots, peeled and sliced into paper-thin half-moons
- 1 lemon
- Red wine vinegar
- Olive oil
- Salt
- Pepper


1. Preheat the oven to 400°. Rub the red pepper with a small amount of oil, place it in a small baking dish, and roast in the oven, turning occasionally, until the skin is blackened and the flesh is soft, about 20 minutes. Remove dish from oven and tent with foil.
2. Meanwhile, cook the lentils. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, then add the lentils. Drop to a simmer and cook lentils, stirring occasionally, until they are tender but still al dente, about 20 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water.
3. Place the diced potatoes in a medium pot and cover with cold water. Add 1/2 tsp. salt. Bring to a boil, drop to a simmer, and cook until potatoes are cooked through but still firm, about 12 - 15 minutes. Drain.
4. When pepper is cool enough to handle, peel off the skin, open it up and discard the seeds and ribs. Slice into thin strips.
5. Combine the lentils, potatoes, red pepper and sliced shallots in a large salad bowl. Add the juice of 1 lemon. Add about 2 tbsp. red wine vinegar and about 4 tbsp. olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Taste the salad and adjust flavorings as necessary: it might need more vinegar, oil, salt or pepper. The salad is best if it sits for a few hours and absorbs the dressing. Before serving, taste again and adjust seasonings as necessary.