Curing The January Malaise: Making Cabbage Soup
Cooking right after the holidays is always an uninspired time for me. Besides the inevitable January downer of celebrities taunting me with their weight loss successes in commercials that I am sure were made well in advance of any Christmas cookie binges, now is when my two usually reliable cooking cues -- the weather and whatever foods are in season -- aren't pushing me into the kitchen.
Post-holiday malaise aside, I think each cooking season has shortcomings and compensations. That means that at this time of year, instead of acutely fresh ingredients bought days, if not hours, after being picked, we get to have the rich pleasures of roasted root vegetables, baked pastas, or braised short ribs. So if I can't have ramps and local strawberries, at least I'm motivated to use one of those quarts of tomatoes I canned last summer to make a simmering pot of beef stew. To everything there is a season.
Still, my heart wasn't really in it when last week I headed to my neighborhood Greenmarket. It's held every Friday morning throughout the year, rain, snow or shine, and even though some of the farmers are absent this time of year, there are still a few that bring winter crops that they've put into cold storage. Plus there are the non-produce folks like dairy from Ronnybrook Farms, Pure Vida seafood, a couple of grass-fed beef farmers, DiPaola Turkeys, and the happy trio of cheese, bread and (Long Island) wine producers.
A regular weekly stop for me is Tello's Green Farm, which during the summer has a small but irresistible selection of produce. But what everyone loves year-round are Tello's eggs. Nestor Tello drives his van from his farm in New York's Greene County, north of Poughkeepsie, and sets up his table, carefully checking every carton of eggs before he sells it. Last week, as he handed me my usual one dozen large brown eggs ($4.50 per dozen), he leaned forward and with a conspiratorial sotto voce said, "I've got hens today." He reached under the table, opened a large cooler and chose a small chicken, still frozen in a plastic bag.
I'd found my inspiration.
Hens Versus Chickens: Making Stock
But first, what's a hen? Simply put, hens are old female chickens that have put in their time laying eggs and now are past their prime. The potential here for cheap feminist humor is enormous but instead I'll resist and just move on. What's the difference between a hen and the chickens we buy to roast or use in chicken salad? They're both domesticated fowls but they've been raised for different purposes. The chickens we use as meat are called broiler chickens and are between six and about 14 weeks old when they're slaughtered; factory-bred chickens are fed aggressively to get fat faster and slaughtered sooner (a more profitable business model) with free-range chickens taking longer to reach the size needed to go to market. Thus it is apparently true that a free-range chicken has a better -- and longer -- life than those from Purdue.
Chickens raised to produce eggs are called egg-laying hens and how long they live will depend upon the farmer and the breed. Big industrial egg producers have methods to keep the hens producing longer, for as much as seven years, usually by withholding feed so that the hen loses weight and this jump-starts their egg laying. But other farmers, like Tello's, will instead butcher the hens after a more normal year or so of egg laying, and then sell them for stock.
In comparison to the chicken you buy at a butcher, hens are scrawny because they're fed to be healthy enough to lay eggs, not become fat and end up on our dinner tables. Plus, after simmering a hen for several hours to make stock you'll cook out all its flavor, so if your goal is chicken soup with bits of meat included, instead use a chicken. But if your goal is a rich, complex stock, there's none better than one made with a hen.
As for cost, my hen cost $10 and I used it, along with about $1.00 of other ingredients, to make four quarts of stock, about the same price had I bought boxed stock at the grocers.
I took my dozen eggs and my hen home to explore my options because a rich stock made with a hen was one thing. Soup was something else.
Stock Pots in a City Kitchen
Can you make stock or soup without a stockpot? Of course you can. For those of us who have small kitchens and little storage space, I've never thought of a stockpot as an essential. But then again, what is an essential kitchen tool totally depends upon how we cook, as well as that elusive thing we all know, a kind of culinary equipment lust.
Since I didn't own a stockpot, until very recently I would make soup in either my 6-quart pasta pot, which is taller rather than wide and has a removable colander insert, or my 6-quart enameled cast iron French oven, or my slow cooker. Since I don't cook for large groups, which might call for big amounts of gumbo or jambalaya, I've never had the need for a large pot. I'd sometime wish the pots I had were just a little bit bigger, but I made do being a pragmatic advocate of using equipment for multiple purposes.
But a couple of months ago I learned that the line of All-Clad, which for years I've been slowly collecting, a piece-at-a-time every year or so as gifts-to-me, had gone out of production. For you All-Clad lovers it's the LTD line, the one that has a dark charcoal exterior and is fabled for not being able to put in the dishwasher (although a few years ago All-Clad fixed whatever was the issue and launched a dishwasher-proof LTD2).
There was one remaining piece that I always wanted and figured that I had all the time in the world to someday buy it: the 8-quart stock pot. But hearing the news about its pending extinction from a salesman at Zabar's, I called All-Clad and it was confirmed: whatever is still in stores or on-line is the remaining inventory and once it's gone, it's gone. So all the time in the world meant now. I had to have it.
I turned to Ebay, my first go-to source for almost anything, and sure enough, there was my All-Clad LTD2 8-quart pot. Brand new, in the original box, with the All-Clad paperwork and lifetime guarantee. The auction had a $99 minimum bid, which was about 30% of what my pot would cost retail. The adrenaline rush I experience with an Ebay auction reminds me why I will never go to Las Vegas. But five days later the pot was mine, for a final winning bid of $153, plus shipping, from a guy in northern California. I'd find a way to store it later but for now, it was time to make soup.
Veselka's Cabbage Soup
How was I to give a proper baptism to my new stockpot? I took the Tello hen out of my freezer and reached for my copy of The Veselka Cookbook, named for and with recipes from the very popular Ukrainian restaurant in New York's East Village.
My mother is Ukrainian and I grew up eating cabbage soup, which we called kapusta. The one made by my Aunt Mary had an irresistible and satisfying tang instead of the sweetness usually associated with cabbage soup. Since I lost my aunt when I was in my late teens and she was never one to write down a recipe, I'd spent nearly a lifetime trying to re-create a flavor I'd never forgotten.
Tasting Veselka's soup was as if my Aunt Mary were in the kitchen. Using a base of rich chicken stock in which a small piece of pork shoulder is simmered, the soup achieves its uniquely satisfying flavor with sauerkraut.
Veselka's recipe calls for three cups of sauerkraut, but I instead use half sauerkraut and half fresh cabbage, shredded as fine as the kraut in the jar. This was a trick my aunt would use whenever cooking cabbage for filling pierogies or sautéing with bacon because the combination reduced the sauerkraut's sourness while adding flavor to cooked cabbage's dull taste.
Try to choose a piece of pork that has as little fat as possible and trim it carefully because it's tricky to skim the fat after the soup is made. Because of the vegetables and pieces of tender pork, the finished soup is satisfying enough to be a meal, especially if it's partnered with black bread and a little salted butter.
Makes about 3 quarts of soup.
1 1/2 pounds boneless pork Boston butt, cut into quarters
1 1/2 quarts (6 cups) chicken stock
3 whole allspice berries
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon dried marjoram
1 1/2 cups sauerkraut, drained
1 large russet potato, peeled and diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
3 celery stalks, minced (about 1 cup)
2 large carrots, minced (about 1 cup)
1 small onion, cut into small dice (about 1 cup)
1 1/2 cups finely shredded fresh cabbage
Optional: 4 tablespoons of juice from the sauerkraut jar
- Place the pieces of pork in a stockpot that's big enough to hold the pork and 4 quarts of liquid. Add the chicken stock and 6 cups of water, the allspice berries, bay leaves, and marjoram. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer and cook partially covered until the meat is fully cooked to being tender, about 2 hours.
- Remove the meat from the pot and set aside to cool. Skim most of the fat from the surface of the stock, leaving a little behind for flavor. Remove the bay leaves and allspice berries. Return the pot stock to the stove.
- Add the sauerkraut and simmer for 20 minutes.
- Add the potato and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Add the celery, carrot, onion and shredded cabbage and simmer for 10 additional minutes until the potato and carrots are tender.
- Cut the meat into bite-sized cubes and add to the soup. Simmer for 10 minutes until the meat is heated through and all the flavors have combined. Taste and adjust seasoning, including adding up to 4 tablespoons of juice from the sauerkraut jar for added tang (add a tablespoon at a time and taste after each until the flavor is right).
- Serve immediately.
Makes 4 quarts.
1 3-pound chicken or hen
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
2 celery stalks, cleaned and trimmed of any leaves or dark spots, and cut into large chunks
1 medium yellow onion, cut into quarters
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 teaspoons salt
6 black peppercorns
- Rinse the chicken well, both inside and out. Use the whole chicken, neck, feet (if they come with the chicken) but not the heart, gizzard or liver as these will cloud the stock.
- Choose a large stockpot or Dutch oven that can contain both the chicken and about 4 to 5 quarts of water. Place the chicken and all the other ingredients in the pot and cover with cold water, enough to cover the chicken (about 4 quarts).
- Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Skim off any foam that develops on the surface. Cook, with the pot partially covered, for a minimum of 4 hours up to 6 hours.
- Remove the carcass from the broth and strain the broth through a fine sieve into a large bowl or another large pot, pressing on the cooked vegetables to capture any remaining broth.
- Let cool completely and then refrigerate overnight. The next day you can remove and discard any fat that will have risen to the surface and solidified.
You never know when cooking inspiration can come from. Even an old hen.