Cabbage often gets a bad rap, but this luscious soup just might change your mind. And best of all is that it keeps getting better, so go on and make it ahead for the week! The mercury is down and the winds have picked up here in Chicago. So what is more delicious on these cold darker days than a nourishing bowl of soup and some good bread. And the smell of this cabbage will lure you in – not have you heading for the hills.
I have made this soup for decades, but never actually wrote down the recipe before. So this blog is giving me the opportunity to not only save it for myself, but to pass it on. The origins of the soup are Eastern European, where my family came from. Since they were poor and living in a shtetl, it is doubtful that there would have been much meat in this soup. Therefore, it was not the star, but rather a flavoring. And it is likely that water was used instead of stock. I look on my version as a salute to my grandparents, but not a slavish rendition.
This is not one of my vegan recipes. But the meat could be left out and vegetable stock could sub for beef stock. It won’t be quite the same, but because of the many layers of flavors built in, a vegan version would still be delicious. While I rarely eat meat these days, small amounts are welcome occasionally in these colder months along with a little extra fat – in my food, not on me! I have not tried making Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup with one of the newer meat substitutes available, but if someone out there would like to try it, I’d love to hear how it turns out.
Below is my recipe, but it should be seen as a guide rather than as an absolute. Measurements in these things are a suggestion and can be adjusted to suit individual tastes. You will notice that rather than using a roux or other thickeners, I use ginger snaps. The snappier the better! Not only do they thicken the soup as they dissolve but they also add that warmth and spiciness that cuts through the richness of the beef, if used, and makes this soup interesting. So when looking for ginger snaps, please don’t go for really sweet cookies.
Some recipes use apple cider vinegar or sour salt (citric acid) to achieve the sour part of the taste profile. I tried the apple cider vinegar but found that I needed fresh lemon juice to gain the punch and proper balance to suit my palate. I have also successfully used sour salt.
This soup of humble origins will warm your soul – guaranteed. And the intoxicating aroma will make your house smell like fall. Thoughts of cuddling on a couch or in front of a fire won’t be far behind.
If I am feeling especially ambitious, I will bake a pumpkin, apple or pecan pie for dessert. But a lovely fruit crumble, Brown Betty or baked apple with zabaglione also would raise this to another level as a special dinner. And don’t forget the bread!
Yield: About 10 servings
1 medium head of green cabbage – about 2.5 pounds that has been quartered, cored and thinly sliced
4 to 5 medium carrots, peeled and cut into medium chunks or thick circles
2 Tablespoons neutral oil like canola or sunflower
About 2 pounds of short ribs of beef, chuck roast or beef shank, if using
1 large onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
14.5 oz. can of diced tomatoes
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
1 large bay leaf or 2 smaller
About 10 whole cloves plus optional additional ground cloves
kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
1.5 teaspoons ground allspice
1 to 1.5 cups of raisins
3 Tablespoons of dark or light brown sugar
Juice of 1 to 3 juicy lemons or a mixture of apple cider vinegar and lemon juice
About 12 cups of stock/water/bouillon or some mixture thereof. (I used 4 cups of unsalted beef stock, 2 bouillon cubes and the remaining 8 cups were water.)
12 to 20 ginger snaps – 2-inch diameter, depending on how thick you like your soup
If you are using meat and are making this ahead: generously salt and pepper the meat and place in a glass or stainless container or a heavy duty plastic bag. Allow to sit in the fridge ideally overnight but for at least 4 hours. Remove from the fridge about 30 minutes to an hour before cooking. (Okay, so that is the ideal and I did do it this time, but plenty of times I have made this and simply took my meat out about 30 minutes before cooking, salted it and then cooked. You will have delicious soup either way, but the meat that is salted overnight remains moister and more tender when cooked.)
In a large stockpot, add the 2 Tablespoons of oil and heat to a shimmer. If using meat, add it now. Do not move the meat around, but allow it to sear and brown well on each side. The first side takes about 5 minutes. Then using tongs, turn the pieces of meat over. The subsequent sides will take about 2 to 3 minutes each. When the meat is crusty and well-browned, remove the meat to a plate or bowl. If there is a lot of excess fat in the pan, drain it off, leaving the brown bits and about 1 Tablespoon of the oil.
Now add in the onions and 1 teaspoon of salt. Allow the onions to soften and begin to lightly brown. This should take about 8 minutes.
You will now add the bay leaf, whole cloves and 1 teaspoon of ground allspice and tomato paste. Stir through the onions.
Add in the sliced cabbage and carrots and the canned tomatoes. It will look like a huge amount but the cabbage cooks down. As well as you can (tongs probably are easiest for this task), mix everything through with the spices, onions, tomatoes and tomato paste. You can add the stock to make it a bit easier to mix things. Layer in the meat if using and the remaining water with bouillon or additional stock.
Bring to a boil with the pot uncovered. Give a good stir, cover the pot and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for 2 hours or until the meat, if using, is starting to fall off of the bone.
Open the pot and give it a stir. Now add in your raisins and ginger snaps and mix through. Re-cover the pot and cook for another 15 minutes.
You are ready to add in the brown sugar and lemon juice to achieve that perfect sweet and sour balance. Start slowly. You can always add more but you cannot take it away once added. Taste and adjust your seasonings to your personal palate, adding more salt, pepper and allspice as required. Because I add raisins and ginger snaps, which do have some sugar, my brown sugar to lemon juice ratio is less than other recipes which tend to do 1 to 1. You decide for yourself how sweet or sour to make it.
This soup keeps well for several days and only gets richer with gentle reheating. It should also freeze well.