Monday, February 17, 2014

Winter Vegetable, Hungarian Accent

Green cabbages at Iovine Brothers' Produce
It's soup weather, an ideal vehicle for that sturdiest of winter vegetables: cabbage. It's cheap, easy to prep, nutritious and satisfying.

First, let's deal with price. At the Reading Terminal Market today OK Lee had a special on green cabbage, 39 cents a pound -- half the price Iovine Brothers was charging, although even at 79 cents cabbage will hardly bust a budget. (Red and savoy cabbages are a tad more expensive: this week they were 99 cents at Iovine.)

I found a small cabbage weighing in at a pound and a half (most heads of green cabbage are between two and three pounds) and decided an Eastern European style soup was the way to go. I found lots of recipes on the web, and they were fairly similar, but the one I settled upon -- with two significant tweaks -- is attributed to Mel Markon's, a defunct Jewish deli in Chicago with a credit to the recipe's original appearance in the December 1980 issue of Gourmet magazine.

In addition to scaling the recipe down from a three pound head of cabbage, I took advantage of some homemade Hungarian sausages made by a neighbor's father in Budapest and smuggled back here about four or five years ago. Yes, the sausage is that old, but I've been using it as a flavoring agent in soups and stews and have lived to tell the tale. It replaces the sweet paprika called for in the sausage-less original recipe (find it here), but you could use smoked paprika instead.

My second tweak beyond the sausage was to add some barrel sauerkraut lurking in the back of my fridge. I used about a cup, rinsed, because that's all I had. If I had a quart, I would have used it all.

The most expensive part of the recipe is the meat, since it calls for one and a half pounds of short ribs; I used a little over a pound since I was dealing with a lesser quantity of cabbage.

Finished soup
Start by putting 12 cups of water in your stock or soup pot, then adding the beef before turning the heat to medium high. Once the water starts bubbling, cut back the heat to maintain a steady but minimal simmer. Do not add salt or any other seasoning at this point. When the meat is tender (which might take about an hour) remove it to a platter and let it cool. Make sure to skim the surface of the stock as it cooks to remove scum, and after removing the meat also skim off any fat globules you can find on the surface. (If you wind up boiling rather than simmering the broth, the fat will be emulsified into it, and that's yucky.)

While the meat simmered I attacked the cabbage. After discarding the outer leaves and coring the cabbage I cut it into roughly one-inch pieces. A medium onion got the same treatment. Although the recipe doesn't call for it I added half of an exceedingly large carrot (about one medium carrot) cut into slightly smaller than spoon-sized chunks.

Next, remove the meat from the bone and cut away any identifiable unrendered fat and gristle, then cut the meat into small bits, half-inch at the most.

Take the meat and veggies and add them to the pot, along with three-quarters of a cup of ketchup, a cup of chopped, drained canned tomatoes, a quarter cup of sugar, and a quarter cup of lemon juice (cider or white vinegar could be used in a pinch). If you are fortunate enough to have Hungarian sausage (a Spanish chorizo or Portuguese chouri├žo would also work) chop up about two ounces worth and add it to the pot. With sausage there's no need for additional seasonings. If you have no suitable sausage go with four or five teaspoons of paprika, plus salt to taste.

The soup should gently simmer (only the barest of bubbles should break on the surface) for 30 to 60 minutes. But don't be tempted to cook longer: overcooking is what leads to cabbage emitting a sulfurous and off-putting odor.

Like many soups and braises it improves with an overnight stay in the refrigerator, which will also allow you to remove congealed fat that might accumulate on top. I froze about half of it and have been enjoyably consuming the remainder. With a slice of good rye bread or pumpernickel and sweet butter you've got yourself a great meal.

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