Monday, September 27, 2010

Zuppa/Sop/Soup : Zuppa di cavolo/Cabbage soup

Etymologically, soup is less about broth than about bread. I got to thinking about this when I wondered what makes Zuppa Inglese, essentially an Italian trifle, a soup. The answer is that Zuppa Inglese is not a zuppa because it is a liquid soup, but because it is based on cake (a stand in for bread) soaked in rum syrup (a stand in for broth). Thus, Zuppa di Pesce is not just fish and seafood cooked in tomato sauce. It needs toasted bread, or those hard thick peppery crackers (frisselle?) in the bowl to become a zuppa. When we were in Southern Italy, zuppa di pesce was much drier than what we get here, a dish of fish cooked in tomato sauce, with some of the scant liquid spooned over toasted bread. Indeed, our word soup is etymologically related to the Late Latin suppa, which is bread soaked in liquid. Soup is a sop more that a broth. The bread turns it into more of a main dish than a first course and it is a great way of making sure that old or stale bread does not go to waste.

It is with this in mind that I approached the soggy defrosted head of cabbage leaking all over my fridge a few weeks ago. The story will be too familiar to readers of my facebook page. I was going to try to reconstruct my grandmother's recipe for stuffed cabbage for Rosh Hashana, so I had frozen a large cabbage the week before labor day. I really understood why the unit of measurement for cabbage is a head. It was like having a houseguest in our freezer, or at least the severed head of one. Then came the call from my brother that his family did not want stuffed cabbage for dinner, but rather the more traditional holiday dish of Semur Daging, an Indonesian beef stew with spices and sweet soy sauce. So, we made a special trip to Chinatown for Bango Kecap Manis, said to be a tastier sweet soy sauce than the more readily available brand, ABC. We found it after visiting five stores, on Mulberry street in a place stocking groceries from all over Southeast asia. I made a big pot (about 6 pounds of meat) of Semur Daging, and then got another call from my brother saying that his daughter was no longer eating read meat, could we have something else.

She had leftover salmon, but we were stuck with this head in our freezer, and given the scarcity of freezer space in most NYC apartments , this was not a sustainable situation. I transferred the head to the fridge, where it took about three days to defrost. Freezing and defrosting is the alternative to blanching to soften and separate cabbage leaves, and it worked beautifully. I made a Georgian (as in Tiblisi, not Atlanta) cabbage roll stuffed with walnut paste, and it was a big hit with our guests the first night of RH. This is shaped more like a Japanese nori roll than traditional stuffed cabbage, and the stuffing tastes a bit funky and consists of walnuts, garlic, basil, cilantro, vinegar, marigold and fenugreek leaves.

But I was now stuck with the inside of a defrosted cabbage in our fridge. It did not represent the kind of space crisis that a whole head in the freezer did, but was unwelcome none the less. So, what to do? Soup! Rather than going for a Jewish or Northern European Cabbage Soup, we had some nice bread getting stale on our counter, so we went with a zuppa. Here is a method, more than a recipe. You can make it with different vegetables, or a combination, and add beans if you want. You can even make it with rice or pasta rather than bread, but then it wouldn't be soup.

Zuppa di cavolo

  • 1 slice of bread per person (see below)
  • a few cloves peeled fresh garlic
  • butter and/or olive oil (see below on cooking fat)
  • finely chopped onion, carrot and celery (about 1-2 cups total)
  • canned or fresh tomato (here I used about 1/2 of a 16 ounce can, drained and chopped; you can use as little as one tomato, or as much as the entire can; blanch and skin fresh tomatoes if you use them)
  • cabbage: about 2-4 cups, shredded (green or savoy, fresh or defrosted)
  • liquid, about 4 cups (see below)
  • 1 bay leaf (optional)
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 or 2 pieces of rind from chunks of Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese scraped to remove any unidentifiable growths (optional, but adds a lot of flavor -- see below)
  • fresh grated Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese

  1. If the bread slices are very large, cut them in half so that they will fit in your soup bowls. If it is already stale, toast it lightly to dry out more. Otherwise, toast lightly and then leave in a low oven to dry while you make the soup.
  2. When the bread is done, rub it on both sides with a peeled clove of garlic, One clove is usually good for 2 slices of bread.
  3. Heat the fat (between 1 teaspoon and 3 tablespoons, it is up to you) in a 4 quart soup pot.
  4. Add the onions, carrots and celery, salt lightly to help them sweat, and saute until soft but not brown.
  5. Add the cabbage and saute for a few minutes with the vegetable.
  6. Add the diced tomato and saute.
  7. Add liquid and the cheese rinds, and a few grinds of pepper, bring to a boil, and cook about 1/2 hour.
  8. Taste for salt and pepper -- the amount will depend on the saltiness of the liquid that you used.
  9. To serve, put a piece of bread in each soup bowl, top with the vegetables and broth, and serve with grated cheese.
  10. This is a dinner for 4 with a salad.

Cook's perk: The cheese rinds add great flavor to the broth, and should stay in the pot and not go in the soup plate. Actually, they should go in the cooks mouth while they are hot and before the soup makes it to the table. The rinds become soft, gooey and edible. Depending on the cheese, and on how long the soup is cooked, they will either have a deep cheesy flavor, or just the ghost of a flavor that was once there. Either is profound. As you use Parmesan or grana, just save the rinds in a plastic bag in the freezer, and use when you make soup.

The bread: The bread can be white or whole grain, sourdough or regular as long as it is NOT SWEET. We like it with "peasant breads," ciabatta, or a sourdough whole wheat. This time we made it with something called "wine bread" which was like a light sourdough, which my parents picked up at a farmers' market on Long Island. If you know that you will be making this, cut the bread a day or so before, and leave it in a paper bag or wrapped in paper towels were it will get slightly stale. Florentine bread is ideal but rarely found in the US. It is made without salt, so it does not attract water and gets stale rather than moldy. I believe that Dante, who was a political exile, complained that "the bread of exile is bitter and salty." He should be taken literally on this.

The fat: Originally, this was almost certainly made with lard or for those who could afford it, guanciale (salted pork jowl) or pancetta (rolled salted but not smoked bacon). Having given up pork products, I find it is still wonderful with butter and/or olive oil. If you want to add a little funkiness, you might dissolve and anchovy fillet or two in the fat before adding the onions. I haven't tried this myself yet since my wife is anchovy averse and has limited cabbage tolerance, so I didn't want to press my luck.

The liquid: We generally use water with one Telma pareve beef bullion cube. We add a few rinds of cheese, which adds a remarkable, deep umami flavor to the broth. You can use homemade or boxed (not canned!!) broths, though Italian home cooks would probably use a cube. If you make this with beans and use home-cooked beans, the bean broth can be used and is rich and tasty. Salt towards the end to make sure that you don't oversalt.

Variations: You don't need a soggy defrosted cabbage to make this dish. A fresh green or savoy cabbage would also do nicely. It can also be made with zucchini, green beans, spinach (don't cook this so long -- 5 or 10 minutes will do), lancinato kale, or escarole. If using escarole or kale, go light on the tomato, and white beans are particularly good. The beans can be cannellini, navy, or great northern. If you use canned beans, discard the vile liquid, rinse very well, and add toward the end. If you cooked the beans yourself, use the broth in the cooking liquid.

Starch variations: You can leave out the bread and use short soup pasta like ditalini or orzo, or add a few spoons of arborio rice. Cook these for about 10 minutes after you add them. However, as said above, it will no longer be soup, rather some kind of minestra. However, it will still be good.


  1. So, now we know how the cabbage came to its final, watery end!
    PS. Tuscan bread is AWFUL...bread without salt is very bad.

  2. But is does get stale well, and the rest of the food is hypersalted, so when you pour the soup on top of it, you never notice. But I agree re eating it straight.