Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Great Mid-Winter Meal in a Bowl

In his recent book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan wisely advises: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." He also warns us to stay away from manufactured foods that have more than six ingredients, especially ones we can't pronounce.

Fortunately, this is not a problem for me, especially in summer. Nothing I love more on a hot day than a Greek salad (with extra feta); warm strawberry/rhubarb pie or fresh-grown tomatoes drizzled with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh basil and kosher salt.

But in winter, something about the cold makes me crave foods that bring me comfort, and a slice of cool watermelon, as beloved as it is on smokin' hot day in August, just doesn't do it for me on a frigid January night. I need something, well...with a little weight to it.

So I thought of something else Michael Pollan advises: "Don't eat anything your great-great grandmother wouldn't recognize."

Unfortunately, I never met my great-grandmothers. The only thing I know is that they were poor and lived somewhere in Eastern Europe, maybe Russia. Still, I decided to imagine what comfort food they might have whipped up mid-winter that fit Pollan's requirements. And bingo! It's the cabbage borscht my mother made every winter which I now make for my own family.

I never before counted the number of its ingredients or plant content, but somehow, I think Pollan would approve of the surprisingly easy and delicious, thick, sweet and sour soup. I even think he'd agree when I tell you not to stint on the sour cream when you serve it.

My Mother's Sweet and Sour Cabbage Borscht

The ingredients and cooking times are approximate. My mother never wrote anything down. Play around with the recipe until you get it right. You'll know when that is.

1 large jar of sauerkraut (no cutting cabbages!)
3 onions, cut in quarters
1 - 2 pounds short ribs, "flanken" or stewing beef
2 large cans tomatoes
10 peppercorns, crushed
a big handful of brown sugar (to taste)
sour cream

In a large soup pot, cover the meat with water, bring to a boil, then simmer until the meat becomes soft enough for you to pull it apart.

Put  the sauerkraut in a colander and rinse lightly with water (this step is important) to remove some of the brine. When rinsed, add it to the pot along with the cut onions, cans of tomatoes (with the liquid) and crushed peppercorns. Break up the tomatoes into pieces so they don't remain whole. Cook together for 1/2 an hour or more to blend the flavours and cook the onions. This is a thick meal-in-a-bowl soup, but if you need more liquid, add water (or another can of tomatoes if you like).

Now is the time for seasoning the soup to give it the great sweet and sour kick. Add the 'big handful' of brown sugar or to taste (it may need  more than you'd think).  The soup should have a nice strong pepper hit to it too, so you may want to add more pepper. Play with it to suit your own taste.

Serve hot with a big dollop of sour cream on top and thick slices of pumpernickel bread slathered with sweet butter. Have a bowl of sour cream on the table, just in case. Enjoy!

I'd love to know what your favourite mid-winter comfort food is


  1. Today it is 3 towering bowls of double chocolate almond fudge brownie frozen yogurt.

  2. Linda, how very genereous, evocative, and mouth-wateringly terrific. (Who knew the recipe, with jars of sauerkraut, was your mother's? For that matter, who knew that your mother cooked anything as delectable and comforting as cabbage borscht?) And Brava!!!!!
    Here's my mother's - it has even fewer ingredients :)

    1 cabbage - shredded
    1 lb. flanken and bone
    1 onion
    juice of 1 lemon
    1/2 cup sugar
    1 large can tomatoes
    salt and pepper

    Flanken in water to cover = an inch or 2
    Bring to boil
    (if time - refrigerate till fat congeals and can be removed)
    Add rest of ingredients
    Boil, covered

  3. Would you consider adding crushed ginger snaps to the already delicious soup...a tribute to our Hadassah mothers.