I know the snow is blowing like crazy in the Northeast, while here in San Diego it's in the 70s. We appreciate the mild weather (even though we desperately need rain!). But, hey, it's January, and a bit of chill would be kind of nice. My body is geared toward warming soups and stews this time of year.
Especially this sweet and sour cabbage soup that my Nana used to make. It's thick with cabbage and tomatoes, rich from beef short ribs, and has that terrific tang of acid from lemon juice. I've always adored this and, fortunately, got the recipe from her when I was in college. I don't know if the soup was something her mother made and if it goes back to her early childhood in Ukraine. She never talked about that part of her past. All I know is that this recipe, along with many others, went from her to my mom or directly to me.
My mom has changed up the recipe to reflect a healthier approach. Instead of browning the cabbage in butter, then adding the beef and cooking up the soup all at once to create a soup with chunks of beef flanken, she has the butcher trim all the fat off and cooks the beef separately, then shreds it and adds the cooked beef to the rest of the ingredients to simmer into soup. And, she doesn't brown the cabbage.
Mom also adds carrots, potatoes, and onions. As she says, it's one of those recipes that you can change without doing any harm.
I love these additions. She made the soup earlier this month when my brother was visiting from North Carolina. We came into the house and found this pot burbling on the stove. The scent was home.
I'm taking the middle ground. I'm all for getting rid of the unhealthy fat from the beef, but I think sauting the cabbage, onion, and carrots--in olive oil--adds more flavor. Like Mom, I then add the rest of the ingredients. Nana? She didn't add the salt, sugar, and lemon juice until the soup had cooked for a couple of hours. We've tried it both ways and don't think it makes a difference. So, for convenience, we toss it in all together at once and let it cook.
Nana's Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup
2 pounds short ribs, trimmed of fat, with bones
2 tablespoons olive oil (optional)
1 large green cabbage, thinly sliced
1 onion, sliced
2 large cans crushed or diced tomatoes (juice included)
2 red potatoes, diced
1 or 2 carrots, grated
Salt to taste
Juice of two lemons
4 to 5 cups water
Brown or white sugar to taste (Nana's directions start with 1/4 cup)
In a large pot, add meat and cover with water. Add a little salt to season the meat. Bring to the boil and skim. Reduce the temperature and simmer for a couple of hours or until the meat is tender. Remove the meat from the pot and let cool. When you can handle it, shred the meat and discard the bones.
Wash the pot, heat the oil, and add the cabbage, onions, and carrots. Saute until browned. Then add the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer. Cook for two hours or until the cabbage is transparent and soft. Taste to adjust the lemon juice for sweet and sour balance.
My mom also likes to top it off with a bit of fresh dill and a little (non-fat) sour cream. I also like a crusty sourdough bread for sopping up the liquid.