Fran’s Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup

Fran’s Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup

Lately, I’ve been posting pictures of the dinners I’m making. Lots of us are sharing #coronacuisine, #quarantinecuisine because we’re cooking nearly every meal! It can be exhausting. And don’t get me started how many dishes pile up! A few days ago, I posted a picture of my mothers’ sweet and sour cabbage soup and got nearly 20 requests for the recipe. Clearly, this soup has hit a nerve. 

We always need comfort food, but never more than now. We also need simple food with simple ingredients that are easy to keep on hand. Finally, we need to use leftovers creatively. What could be better than a bowl of soup? 

Last week was Passover. Jewish holidays are the only time I’ll cook fatty meat. I made short ribs–for a crowd of 3 with a big spoonful of hot Pimenton, smoked Spanish paprika, which gave the dish a kind of Hungarian flair. It’s the kind of spice you buy when you’re in a shopping coma and hit the weird food aisle at Marshalls.

The shorts ribs were delicious and after we ate the meat a deeply flavored sauce, full of carrots and dried mushrooms, remained. I didn’t want to waste it. 

Suddenly, I was consumed by a memory of my mother, Fran. She died so long ago—over 35 years–that few other people remember her. But for those few who do, their memories are palpable. My mother was an icon especially in the kitchen. She fed me “health food” before it was a thing. In 1971 she opened a health food store in the ground floor of our house in Bedford Stuyvesant, and called it, Brooklyn Country. It was only the 2nd health food store, ever, in Brooklyn, and it became a gathering place for all of us, including a motley crew of Pratt students, artists, draft dodgers, and all the other misfits from the neighborhood. It made me an especially popular high schooler; when my friends and I had the munchies, we tumbled downstairs to pig out on dried apricots, cashews ($1.60 a lb.!), Barbara’s coconut macaroons, Dr. Bronner’s Corn & Sesame Chips, Haagen Daz boysenberry sherbet and carob ice cream. 

Brooklyn Country was such a successful business, supported by a such a wide and hungry clientele, that my mother next opened a health food restaurant.  It was called Francine’s and was a very Moosewood-like endeavor. There were puppet shows. Fran would make spinach lasagna with fresh pasta she procured from the lower East Side. She never made a profit because my mother fed every poor painting, sculpture, and architecture student who showed up at the door. 

This flood of memories combined with a mere cup of leftover sauce led to a sensory memory of my mother’s cabbage soup. It was a delicious spin on borscht, based only on cabbage, omitting the beets. And it was vegetarian. She developed this recipe during the early 1970’s in her iconic, hippy, health food way, using apple juice concentrate and raisins for sweetness, instead of sugar. 

Soup is not a recipe. Soup is a journey through a refrigerator and a pantry. It’s a path that begins with one ingredient and travels by way of whatever else is left over. I’m giving you a loose roadmap. You choose which fork in the road to take. 

Back to last Sunday, I wanted this soup more than anything. We had all the staples: veggies, broth, tomatoes.  I put on a mask and gloves, went to the market, and bought a cabbage. I added a little sugar to the pot; who uses juice concentrate anymore? You can make this soup with broth, you can make it with meat  Or, you can keep it vegetarian. Don’t sweat the details. 

Since I no longer possess my mother’s official recipe, I opened Barbara Kafka’s gorgeous book, Soup- A Way of Life, published in 1998. Kafka includes two recipes for borsht: one vegetarian and one with meat. The vegetarian version uses dried porcini mushrooms to achieve a deep meaty umami and tastes virtually identical to classic beef borscht. Both finish with sugar and vinegar and are topped with fresh dill and sour cream. The soup I’d imagined included pretty much the same ingredients as Kafka’s, so armed with a framework, I put the book away and cooked from memory. 

The soup you’ll make will be different than mine. I can’t offer an exact recipe; the quantities of each ingredient are flexible. But it won’t matter, yours will be perfect anyway. And if your version doesn’t trigger memories of a beatnik Jewish mother right away, just channel my mom, Fran, and you’ll be fine.

Fran’s Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup

Ingredients:

1 small cabbage cored and shredded into not very thin strips. 

1 large onion, diced

2-3 carrots, diced or sliced

2-3 ribs celery, diced or sliced

2 parsnips- because they were in the fridge. Diced small potatoes would be nice too

Dried mushrooms if you have them

Can of roasted diced tomatoes. Or any can of tomatoes. Or tomato paste

Water, veggie broth, beef or chicken stock. I had turkey stock on hand

¼ cup brown sugar or honey

¼ apple cider vinegar 

1-2 Bay leaves

Salt and pepper to taste

Large handful of fresh dill

Optional: yogurt or sour cream

Method:  

  1. Put on music that makes you want to sing. This soup requires cheerfulness to be delicious. 
  2. If you’re using dried mushrooms, cover them with boiling water to rehydrate. Then cut them into smaller pieces. There might be grit in the water, so I usually strain the liquid through a paper coffee filter. Whatever you do, don’t discard it. It’s filled with deliciousness. No mushrooms? Try Braggs amino’s, coconut amino’s or a generous dash of tamari can also add umami to the soup. 
  3. Cut up all the veggies. The key to their size is to imagine them in a soup spoon. Will they fit? Good! Proceed. 
  4. Add all the veggies to the pot. Add the tomatoes and bay leaf and salt and pepper.
  5. Add whatever you choose to use for broth: cover the veggies by maybe an inch of broth. You can always add more later. I also added the leftover short rib sauce.
  6. You can use a slow cooker, or a pressure cooker. I just made mine in an enamel Dutch oven.  
  7. Add salt and pepper to taste. 
  8. When the vegetables are cooked and tender, add the sugar and vinegar. Adjust the salt and pepper. Let it simmer for a few minutes before you taste to adjust the seasonings. 

OK- so, you don’t have dried porcinis. They cost a zillion dollars. You can try the boxed mushroom broth. Only have water? It’ll taste clean and bright. Or make a veggie broth with all the scraps.

No fresh dill? Do you have dried? Or forget it. We’re all pantry-cooking. Or forget the sugar and vinegar, add a can of beans and some garlic, a handful of macaroni and voila! Minestrone! Use that little bit of pesto lurking in the freezer. Yum! 
Share a picture of your soup.  Share your memories of your soup. I want to know your stories!

Sending everyone nourishing love, 

Cara 

About Cara Frank, L.OM.

Cara Frank, L.OM., was raised in a health food store in Brooklyn, NY. When she was 8, she cartwheeled 5 miles from Greenwich Village through Soho and Chinatown and across the Brooklyn Bridge. For nearly 40 years, she has had the same crazy passion for Chinese medicine. At 17, she had her first acupuncture treatment. At 20, she enrolled in acupuncture school. In 1998 she went to China to study where she fell deeply in love with Chinese herbs. Since then, she has devoted her life to studying and teaching the topic. 

Cara is the founder of Six Fishes Healing Arts in Philadelphia, where she maintains a busy acupuncture practice and acts as the head fish of warm and lively office. She is also the president of China Herb Company. You can read her full bio or schedule an appointment.

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