Food Scoop: Cabbage Soup

The daylight hours are getting longer by the minute, but it’s still cold enough to keep me in long sleeves and pants most days. In turn, I find myself thinking this is still the perfect weather for good, hot soup, or specifically, my mother’s excellent cabbage soup, swimming with winter vegetables and spicy flavors.

Before I encountered this soup, I thought of cabbage as a useless vegetable. I thought coleslaw was a sloppy pile of bland, shredded vegetables. If I stuck my nose into a pot on the stove and found out that my dad was cooking up pork and cabbage with a liberal sprinkling of caraway seeds, I would disappear from the kitchen with alacrity.

And yet, they persistently appeared around my home. My dad would grow them in the garden, and sometimes we would have several small heads of cabbage hanging out on the kitchen counter. I still have no idea what my parents were making with them.

My mother’s cabbage soup, on the other hand, is a very Polish sort of dish. She makes it with a broth of Polish sausage and vegetable stock. Into this, she adds a lot of chopped cabbage, some carrots, stewed tomatoes and maybe a couple potatoes. The recipe was given to her by a lovely woman – an airplane pilot and marathon runner – who passed on the secret of this soup: a spoonful or two of ketchup. Just your ordinary, goes-with-fries-and-hamburgers ketchup.

It turns out that somehow that little bit of ketchup definitely makes a difference. Personally, I think the stock is responsible for a huge amount of the flavor. It’s divine in a meaty way, rife with the spices in Polish sausage.

Before anyone calls me a hypocrite, let me state that I’ve been a vegetarian since I was about 11. That would make me mostly meat-free for about 14 years, but since I was the only vegetarian in a five-person household, I made compromises. As a teen, I ate a lot of veggies that were cooked with meat. I ate soups with meat-based stocks. When my mother cooks for me, I still make some of these compromises. If I were making this in my own kitchen, though, I’d be more likely to use vegetable stock with a variety of spices added.

Either way, this cabbage soup hits the spot. It’s just spicy enough that the flavors sparkle, but not so spicy that I have tears streaming down my face. The cabbage isn’t a second-class vegetable, but it fits right in. It takes on some of those flavors from the broth, but adds structure so I feel like I’m not drinking my meal.

But probably the best thing about my mother’s cabbage soup is simply the fact that it’s been cooked by my mother. She may have a tendency to burn pancakes and to steal handfuls of just-popped popcorn, but she makes a wonderful soup. And there’s just something about the food she cooks that makes me feel loved.

Cabbage Soup
2 rings of Polish sausage
4-6 cups water
1 medium head of cabbage, chopped
1 pint tomatoes
1 onion, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
2 tablespoon ketchup
1 tablespoon vinegar

Throw the rings of sausage into 4-6 cups of water and boil for 10 minutes. Pull sausage out and set aside. If you are making a vegetarian version of this soup, use vegetable stock instead. With the vegetable stock, I would suggest fennel seeds, bay leaf, cracked black pepper and paprika.

Chop up cabbage into bite-sized pieces, and add cabbage to the sausage water, along with vinegar. The water should cover the cabbage, so don’t be afraid to add a little water if you need it. Bring to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, onion and carrots. Return to a boil then add ketchup. Cook until vegetables are done, about 15-20 minutes.

If you are into eating Polish sausage, chop these rings of sausage. Return them to the pot and cook until they are warmed through.

For a thicker soup, add a few potatoes with the vegetables or a tablespoon of flour dissolved into liquid. The latter should be cooked for a little extra time. If the soup is too sour, add a pinch of brown sugar.

Serve. Add salt and cracked pepper to taste, and enjoy.

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