Friday, January 23, 2009

That Kielbasa Across The Room Keeps Looking At Me

So I made some Cabbage and Kielbasa Soup for the Soup and Bread thing I was talking about the other day, with a clever strategy in mind. The way I see it, cabbage soup is a typical soup kitchen soup. There's always extra cabbage laying around, and even though I personally love cabbage, I think it gets misused a lot. How much gets thrown away every day in every half-rate BBQ shack in Chicago, let alone the rest of the States? You know what I mean, that pathetically neglected little paper condiment cup sitting next to the ribs full of lamely shredded cabbage and mayonnaise and maybe a carrot peel or two. No one ever asks this ugly betty to dance. It gets left every time, and this is a lot of people's impression of coleslaw, and therefore cabbage. Which is a shame. 'Cause cabbage is good. Braised with some vinegar and brown sugar and butter, maybe some caraway seeds and bacon? Sliced and placed underneath grilled chicken and rice in a Hawaiian box lunch, the juices dripping down and dressing the cabbage as the heat slightly wilts it? Shredded fresh with some good vinegar and mustard and just a touch of mayo, coleslaw can be downright delicious, and a perfect foil to the rich gut bomb of ribs or brisket, or even in a rich sandwich. Who doesn't love the ham sandwich at The Hop Leaf: pumpernickel bread, Neuske ham, Gruyere, and apple tarragon coleslaw? Come to think of it, maybe the slaw on this sandwich is just made of apples, without cabbage. But you get my point. And I feel I should declare my love for this sandwich anyway.

So yeah, cabbage can be really good, and it gets a bad rap. Thus, my goal was to conjure the Charlie and The Chocolate Factory image of the watery cabbage soup of soup kitchens, and then whack people on the head with a really delicious soup, all in the name of cabbage. Of course the kielbasa didn't hurt; but I promise that the soup would totally stand on its own without meat in it.

And it was easy, too. I diced and fried the kielbasa (which I got cheap, 2 pounds for about $7, and good stuff from Bobak's) in a touch of olive oil until it was seductively browned and crispy. I poured it into a strainer, along with all the fat that rendered out of it. I then returned a bit of the fat to the pot and sweated onion, carrot, celery and garlic in it for a really long time. I mean like 20-30 minutes. I do this when making soup; it really brings out the sugars and essence of the vegetables, and helps to build multiple flavor levels in the soup. I splash a bit of water when needed to keep the vegetables from burning (EGGHEAD TIP: this is a good trick when sweating vegetables or rendering something like bacon for lardons, because the cooking process is a bit gentler, as the temperature in the pot never rises above 212 degrees Fahrenheit--the boiling point of water. Since sugars tend to brown via the Maillard Reaction at 310 degrees, a longer, slower cooking process is possible, allowing deeper, more complex flavors to develop. Once the water has evaporated, browning can begin if so desired at that point.).

Now gets added a head of chopped cabbage which, like so many old men with their birch bark in the Russian Bath House on Division Street, sweats with the rest of the veg for another 15 minutes or so. Stock or water makes the soup, well, soupy and everything is simmered for another 20-30 minutes, then pureed. I then adjusted the seasoning with salt, as well as vinegar. (SIDE NOTE ON ACID: Acid seems to be neglected and underused as a seasoning agent. In my opinion, good vinegar or lemon juice should always be used to fine tune food at the last stage of cooking; acid helps open the palate to other flavors in food that the salt is enhancing. In fact, I'm all for replacing the obligatory pepper shaker or mill with a lemon or bottle of vinegar on every table. Keep the pepper in the kitchen by the stove.) As I pureed and seasoned, I added a bit more of the rendered fat to the soup--this really added a backbone I thought necessary in a soup advertised as having a wonderful Polish sausage in it. When all was adjusted, I put the fried kielbasa in, and the soup was ready to go.

I should warn you, though, that you will encounter a problem when making this soup. See, when the kielbasa is in the strainer, and you are doing everything else for the soup, a siren song of sorts slowly starts seeping out of its smoky, crispy goodness. The kielbasa winks at you and wags a seductive finger; a better person than me would be able to resist. I folded after about 15 seconds, and must have eaten about a pound of the stuff before the soup was done and sealed and in the fridge. I have no will power.

The Soup and Bread event went well. Money raised for the food bank, soup stories exchanged, friends I hadn't seen in awhile showed up, I met a dog, I heard a great story about a crazy odyssey to D.C. for the inauguration, and an acquaintance from the farmer's market kindly and unexpectedly brought me a mason jar of his great homemade apple butter. Isn't that what it's all about?

~one satisfied cat~