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Archive for February, 2018

Big surprise: another soup.

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‘Tis the season, clearly.

You could call this one a lazy cook’s version of stuffed cabbage, essentially unstuffed cabbage in broth. It’s a throwback to my Eastern European roots, though it took me until my late twenties before even trying the traditional stuffed version. My reaction was mixed. The meat was dense, as if the leaves were rolled too tight, and studded with raisins. (Raisins! I plucked them out as best I could.) The sauce was on the too-sweet side but it did had a tart kick and a glossy silkiness that had me sprinkling it with salt and sopping it up with pieces of challah torn off the end of the loaf. I’ve only eaten stuffed cabbage a few more times since, and making it myself seemed a bit of a potscke.

Enter this winter when I’ve found myself eating soup for lunch or dinner at least five days a week. And ground beef in the freezer and a cabbage head rolling around the bin at the bottom of my fridge. I made the soup once. And then I made it again, tweaking and taking notes until I came up with my perfect savory-sweet-sour-spicy balance.

I played around with traditional (vinegar, paprika) and not-so-traditional (sumac, chili flakes) ingredients to get the tangy results I wanted. I also texted my Ukrainian-born sestra (Russian for sister, though we’re not officially related) Marina with questions. Do you put garlic in? NO! What do you put in your sauce? She sent a photo of a can with Cyrillic writing and a Chef Boyardee lookalike. It’s sweet, she said. Eh, I said.

Curious about the “true” taste profile of stuffed cabbage (I should have known there’s no single answer), I turned to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Jewish food historian extraordinaire, the late Gil Marks. In his multi-page entry on the subject, he traces this peasant food’s eastward path from Turkey and/or Persia and talks about differences in palates across different geographies. Seems that, like the “gefilte line” (talk to Jeff Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern about that), there is a distinct preference for sweet in Galicia (today’s southern Poland and northern Ukraine) where sugar beet factories were common – or, actually a sweet-sour combination. North of Galicia is savory stuffed cabbage, and in gefilte fish this translates to being all about the pepper.

Then I went down a rabbit hole, poking around the family tree that my sister started a few years ago to remind myself where my greats and great-greats and great-great-greats and even great-great-great-greats were born. Essentially, my father’s side of the family is from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus (our last name used to be Skversky) and came to the US in the 1880s; my mother’s side is from Poland, Germany, and Hungary, coming over after WWII. So, both in and north of Galicia and that savory-sweet-sour-spicy preference makes sense.

Marina calls stuffed cabbage golubtzi. In my reading (Gil, again), I learned that the name comes from the diminutive form of the word dove – golub in Russian, holub in Ukrainian, golab in Polish – because all those cabbage rolls packed into the pot looked like cute little birds huddling together in a nest. Marina was floored when I mentioned this to her, I never thought of that, she said. Made all the funnier because she calls my sister (Robyn) ptichka – little bird.

I poked around in some of my other cookbooks to see what twists on stuffed cabbage I could find. First up, Jeff and Liz in their Gefilte Manifesto mix kimchi into their meat filling and sauce. Leah Koenig makes a soup in Modern Jewish Cooking that’s a mix of chorizo, cabbage, tomato, and potato. And my friend Meira told me about a soup she used to make that had ground beef and sauerkraut in it. Seems like there are a lot more variations to explore before Spring finally arrives.

(Thanks Inna for the great blue and white plates!)

***

This past week, I happened to go to two interesting dance performances, both of which explored identity, specifically Jewish identity. First was Ka’et Ensemble – a contemporary Israeli dance company comprised of only religious men. Their performance “Heroes” – described here – looks at different male roles and dichotomies such as secular/religious, spiritual/physical, strong/weak, and how they can influence each other, how there can be an ebb and flow. The other performance was Hadar Ahuvia‘s “Everything you have is yours?” – also discussed in the New York Times –  in which the choreographer and two other dancers show and tell and question the origins of Israeli folk dance, raising issues of cultural appropriation and looking internally into her own biases and assumptions.

I’d really love to get back to dance one of these days.

Unstuffed cabbage soup

Make sure to taste taste taste as you go. I’ve put total amounts of salt and spices as a guide, but this may not work for you, so see where I suggest you taste and adjust along the way. Use a big Dutch oven – mine was 7 quarts – because there is a lot of cabbage to add. It eventually cooks down, but it’s easier if you can put it in all at one time.

If you don’t want to add the grains, use only half a can of water or the soup will be too thin.

Makes a generous 3 quarts

– 1-2 t olive oil
– 1 lb ground beef
– 2 large onions, roughly chopped into medium-sized pieces
– 1 T kosher salt (I’m using Diamond Crystal these days, which is less salty than others)
– freshly ground pepper
– 2 t sumac
– 3-4 t hot paprika
– 1 t hot chili flakes
– 1/2 head celery (about 6 stalks), sliced into 1/2-inch chunks (about 1 1/2 C)
– 1/2 head cabbage, roughly chopped into bite-sized pieces (about 8 C)
– 1/4 C brown sugar
– 1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes – don’t throw out the can because you’ll use it to measure water to add
– 3 T red wine or sherry vinegar
– 1 1/2 C cooked wheat berries or other grain (freekeh, barley, rice, etc.)
– Fresh parsley, chopped

Saute. Just barely cover the bottom of a big Dutch oven with olive oil – you don’t need much at all – and place over medium-high heat. Crumble ground beef into the pot and stir around, breaking up any clumps until it turns from pink to brown (but no need to really brown it until it develops a crust) and releases liquid and fat, about 7 minutes. Drain the beef and set aside, leaving the fat/liquid in the pot.

Stir. Drop the flame to medium and then cook the onion in the meat juice. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt, a few grinds of pepper, the sumac, 2 teaspoons hot paprika, and the chili flakes. Cover. Cook until softened but not browned, about 10 minutes. The onion will, however, turn brown as it absorbs all of the meat juice. Add a little water if the pot gets too dry. Stir in the celery and cabbage. Keep stirring until the cabbage wilts. Taste a piece of cabbage to see if it needs more spice or salt and adjust accordingly. I found it needed more salt so I added another teaspoon. Stir in the brown sugar. It will taste too sweet, but the rest of the ingredients will dilute the sugar.

Simmer. Add the meat back to the pot and pour in the tomatoes followed by 2 cans of water. Bring to a boil and then a slow simmer. Add the vinegar. Taste again – at this point I added another teaspoon of salt and 2 teaspoons hot paprika.

Submit. Add in the cooked wheat berries and continue to simmer until the cabbage completely submits, about 30 more minutes. Taste along the way, adding salt or spice or vinegar or sugar.

Serve. Serve with parsley.

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