I learned to cook with my family. Not until I got to college did I cook with friends. Today the friends I have cooked with are the ones I miss most when overwhelmed by the SCHEDULE that is life. Ice cream pie with Kate, cookies with Rachel, pancakes with Jennifer, appetizers with Amy, BBQ with Alexis… One of my best cooking friends is Karen. Not only is she a great cook, but before life took hold with kids, work and full-on adulthood, she would host the best dinner parties. Not the kind on Mad Men with stereotype traditions poorly mimicked to impress a boss. Karen’s dinners are inspired by a creative life lived through farmers markets, reading, and learning to cook with her family and friends.
One such dinner centered around Mrs. Ratner’s Russian Cabbage Soup. At Karen’s table for this event there was Gewurztraminer and soft, hot pretzel rolls. I can’t remember the hors d’oeuvres or the delicious dessert, because my first taste of this soup, an introduction to a good German wine and those heavenly rolls have taken over. When Kimber and I sat down to plan our soup class it was imperative to share this one. With no students to teach this weekend, I decided to make it with my staff (Terri and Nyamsuren).
The recipe from the NY Cookbook is sparse and open to interpretation. Mine would never be like Karen’s, and I will never know the subtleties of Mrs. Ratner’s actual soup, but here is how we tinkered with it. The listed ingredients include beef flanken and soup bones. I substituted Smith Meadows short ribs. The most delicious meat is close to the bone, and the fat on this cut is what makes it so yummy. The cabbage and apple combination was maintained, but I added cloves to the onions when I made the stock. Wait… the recipe doesn’t say anything about making stock? Nope it doesn’t. Mrs. Ratner says to put it all in the pot and then skim. Here’s where my northern Italian family bias took hold in interpreting a Russian- Jewish recipe.
Stock is the foundation of any good kitchen, and not just for complicated French sauces. My trick in this recipe is making the stock first, and taking all the meat off the bones, removing the hardened fat from refrigerated stock, and then putting it all back together to cook with the cabbage, apples and onions. Yes, there is a lot of work, which is why I make it in big batches and freeze it. The other important thing about making stock separately is removing that fat. Although the fat is essential and gives a great flavor to the meat when bubbled together in stock, I don’t want it to linger in the back of my throat hours after I have eaten the soup.
The fat need not be thrown away. This is delicious, rendered fat infused with sage, cloves, celeriac and white wine. Keep it and use it instead of olive oil when making another recipe where you have to carmelize some onions– perhaps for a butternut squash soup. The multiple steps in making a good soup is not overwhelming if you can add value to the by-product. There are some other earlier and important steps I must include. Pardon the lack of order to this recipe ramble. There are myriad ways to make stock. Two things I never fail to do is brown the meat and add wine. As we seared the meat in a large, low sided wok, white wine was splashed onto each piece as it sizzled on high heat. That sizzled wine with browned meat is essential to a good tasting stock. Deglazing with wine is what Escoffier codified when he demystified veal stock in 1903 with his book Guide Culinaire. Read about it some time in Jonah Lehrer’s book Proust Was A Neuroscientist in the chapter on Escoffier (Page 58-59). You will also find out what we really want when we eat MSG and it isn’t in a chemistry lab.
Back to Mrs. Ratner– an alternative to searing is roasting the short ribs in a 400 degree oven with wine and herbs in the bottom of the roasting pan. Make sure all those juices get into the stock pot. Once you have your stock, chopped ruffage, and shredded meat, put it all together in a soup pot with a little tomato sauce (Smith Meadows Neopolitan will do). Cook for 45 minutes. Add barley and cook for another 45 minutes. Add lemon juice and salt to taste. Voila!
Have I rushed through the last part of this? Did you feel like there should be more details with entertaining anecdotes? Would it all be easier to comprehend if you had a glass of wine in your hand as you nibbled on a deceptively simple hor d’oeuvre? If you had come to our class on Saturday you would you would have gotten that and Kimber’s Borscht after Viestad with anecdotes. Cooking with friends at a leisurely pace is a better term for our classes. If that’s what you want then join us for our next class Thinking Toward Thanksgiving on November 6th from 10-1. The day will include a gourmet meal with wine. Kimber and I are plotting this week on what recipes to share. It will involve turkey.