Photo: June Hersh
by June Hersh, Reprinted from Recipes Remembered, a Celebration of Survival
There are dishes that transport all of us back in time. Maybe an aroma that fires up a memory or a taste so singular that you know exactly the time and place you first experienced it. For me, one of those immutable memories is cabbage soup. I remember how my grandmother would chop the cabbage, hand select the meat, crush the tomatoes or make it oh so sour with lemon after lemon.
I prepared this recipe as a homecoming dinner for my dad, the ultimate wandering Jew. I figured it might be fun to take you along on my trip back to Minsk and show you step by step how to prepare this hearty winter soup. I do warn you, the cabbage can be pungent, but the results are delicious. This recipe reminds me of an H.L. Mencken quote:
An idealist is one who, on noticing that roses smell better than cabbage, concludes that it will also make a better soup.
1 large head of green cabbage, cored and shredded
1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes, with 1/2 cup of its juice
3 to 4 pounds of flanken/short ribs, cut into 2 to 3-inch pieces
1 (15-ounce) can sauerkraut, drained
2 quarts beef broth
8 jumbo hotdogs
The juice of 1 to 2 lemons
Kosher salt and pepper
Place the shredded cabbage in a very large soup pot. Add the tomatoes, crushing them over the pot with your hands, allowing the juices to stream in. Add 1/2 cup of the juice from the can. Tuck the ribs into the cabbage and top with the sauerkraut. Pour the broth into the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. If the meat is not falling off the bone, cook an additional 30 minutes. When the meat is cooked, remove it from the pot, so you can trim the meat from the bones to make serving easier. Cut the meat into large chunks and reserve. Add the hotdogs and the juice from one lemon and cook for 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. If time allows, refrigerate the soup overnight so the fat rises to the top and solidifies. Remove this layer of fat, reheat and serve. Serve the soup with a piece of short rib in each bowl and extra lemon to squeeze for a more sour taste.
Step through the recipe with June
1. My first ingredient is cabbage. After all, it is in the name of the recipe. No mandolin or food processor for me. What I like about hand chopping is the lack of uniformity in the shredded cabbage. It gives the soup a more interesting texture, so cut away the core and chop in any direction you choose. Toss that cabbage into the pot, I used a Dutch oven this time, but a good sturdy stockpot works well too.
2. The next ingredient is the beef. I have used everything from oxtails to short ribs, neck or shin meat. That’s the beauty of making soup; you can easily substitute or customize the dish. My daughter likes a beefier broth, so I sometimes add more beef than the recipe suggests. It’s all about keeping your customer happy! For this brew I used a mixture of short ribs and neck meat. Neck meat can be a bit sweeter, but my dad loves to suck on those bones!
3. I got the meat right into the pot along with the tomatoes, which I crushed as I added them, the sauerkraut and the stock. Toss in a few bay leaves and make sure everything is nicely covered.
4. After the soup comes to a strong simmer, put a lid on it and walk away. The soup needs at least 1 ½ to 2 hours for the flavor to really develop and the meat to fall off the bone. Once the meat is fork tender, I remove the pot from the stove and allow it to cool before transferring everything to a container.
I generally refrigerate the soup overnight so that I can skim off the fat; it also allows the flavors to mingle better. I guess in the cold fridge the ingredients huddle together for warmth. As you can see, these containers had barely any fat on top, the meat I selected was very lean and therefore, the soup was too.
5. After skimming off any fat, if you like, remove the meat and cut it into smaller pieces. My family likes the meat left whole. They feel if you need a fork and knife to eat your soup, it’s a meal. When you reheat the soup, toss in the hotdogs- the sauerkraut had been whining for them to join the party. My sister is happy with just the hotdogs and very sour cabbage, so if your family is like mine, don’t skimp on the dogs or that extra squeeze of lemon. On a low fire, heat through and serve.
6. All you need now is a big bowl, some crusty bread and a shot of good ole Russian vodka to clean your palate after you’re done. It’s nice to know you don’t need to travel to Belarus to enjoy this authentic soup. Enjoy! It would make my grandmother very happy.
Yields: 10 servings
Recipes: Soups, Cabbage, Beef, Kosher