Just after Christmas 2005 I began reading one of my Christmas presents, The Perfectionist; Life and Death in Haute Cuisine by Rudolph Chelminski. It’s the story of Bernard Loiseau, a three-star French chef of a legendary restaurant called “La CÃ´te d’Or” in Burgundy who killed himself when his restaurant was threatened with the loss of a star. But Chelminski was still “setting the stage” early in the book, describing Loiseau’s family and father, when I read this passage:
“…soupe au chou: cabbage quarters simply boiled in water with potatoes, carrots, and onions and a large slab of smoked lard (a cut similar to unsliced bacon), chockablock with rich, cholesterol-laden fat. Cut thick slices of sourdough peasant bread to serve with it (not forgetting to first whip the knife back and forth over the loaf in a quick sign of the cross) and you have a dish that is the closest thing to the magic potion of Asterix and Obelix. Soupe au chou is a true French icon, a peasant curative and forifiant that can go head to head with the world’s champion of Jewish penicillins.”
It was cold and gray and snowy most of the week before the New Year, I had all the ingredients on hand (in fact had GROWN all the veg ingredients myself, and had KILLED and salted the meat myself) and could think of no better time to find out if Chelminski was right about this Gallic version of chicken soup. I’m also very partial to cabbage and all of it’s brothers and sisters in the Brassica oleracea clan, and we have an abundance of red cabbage in our root cellar from our 2005 garden. The idea that this is a “French icon” that I’d never heard of or tasted was also very appealing.
Cabbage is not an American vegetable, despite the popularity of coleslaw as a side dish (which I attribute to the low cost of cabbage, not its flavor favor). Even the heavy use of sauerkraut in the US is based on European culture and cuisine, best known in places with a heavy Eastern European heritage as a condiment with a sausage on a bun, or in a rueben deli sandwich.
Cabbage is an icon of European food and cooking mentioned in all kinds of books portraying European life before World War II. It’s frequently a sign of hard times and lower classes, and the odor of cooking cabbage often is used in fiction to indicate that the described location is not in the best of houses/hotels/restaurants.
This round, brain-like vegetable is high in vitamin C, umami, and sugars, so it can contribute a full flavor to cooked dishes. Cabbage also stores very well in cool damp spots (like cellars), thus has been a winter staple (along with potatoes and turnips) for thousands of years in Europe (where it is native to limestone sea cliffs) and beyond. Russia has a specific cultural relationship with cabbage, which features in the national cabbage soup (based on beets, however, and beef when meat is included) called borscht.
Cabbage’s storage ability, culinary usefulness, and reliability may be another reason for its bad rap, simply because it became a redundant table staple through the late part of thousands of winters for millions of people as their food stores dwindled. People just don’t like to eat the same thing over and over, no matter how good it actually is.
There is also that mustardy “stinky” aroma generated when it (or any of its kin) is boiled, the product of trisulfides formed as natural “defensive chemicals” (according to Harold McGee in the second edition of On Food and Cooking) are broken down by enzymes and heat. This molecular breakdown is also responsible for the many flavor compounds freed and/or generated during the cooking of cabbage and other B. oleracea leaves. I find the smell appealing, but Alison does not.
Absent a recipe offered in The Perfectionist, I went searching for one in my cookbook library.
Jacques Pepin translates this basic soup as “Farmer’s Style Soup” in his The Art of Cooking by removing the cabbage (!), and tarts it up using leeks instead of plain onions for the sake of his American audience. I thought it was an interesting case of Pepin serving as the translator with an eye toward capturing the interest of suburban American housewives with his remodeled French standards. He also chops everything very fine so that it will cook faster (American’s HATE to wait for their food!). In the book he explains:
This soup is called “farmer’s style” in France because it is made with a piece of bacon or salted, cured pork and water. The salted pork and vegetables create a flavorful stock. For the classic soup, use the 5 vegetables listed below: leeks, carrots, celery, turnips, and potatoes. Although the soup can be made with stock, the flavor is purer and more authentic done simply with water. The soup doesn’t require a long time to cook and can be made ahead, then reheated and served with croutons. Leftover soup can be puréed in a food processor, giving it another look, texture, and taste.
Farmer’s Style Soup
from Jacques Pepin’s The Art of Cooking
6 oz. slab bacon
2 leeks (about 8 oz.)
3 carrots (about 8 oz.)
1 rib celery
1 medium large turnip (6 oz.)
2 large potatoes (12 oz.)
7 cup water
1 clove garlic
1 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley
3 Tbsp. basil
Cut the bacon into ¼ in. thick slices, then pile the slices together to cut into ¼ in. thick strips or lardons.
Clean the leeks with most of the greens intact. Split them open, wash, and cut into ¼ in. slices. Peel the three carrots and cut into slices lengthwise, then cut into ¼ in. dice.
Peel the turnips and potatoes then cut them and the celery into ¼ in. dice. Blanche the lardons in a Dutch oven or large, heavy pot with enough cold water to cover: bring to a boil and boil about 1 minute. Drain into a sieve and wash the lardons under cold water. Rinse the pot and place the lardons back in it. Place over high heat and fry the lardons over medium to high heat for 3 to 5 minutes, until they are well fried and have rendered most of their fat. Pour out approximately half of the fat. Add the leeks, celery, and carrots, and sauté gently over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the water and salt, and bring to a boil. Let boil about 10 minutes, then add the turnips and potatoes. Return to the boil, cover, and boil gently for about 20 minutes. Taste for salt and add a little if necessary, depending on the saltiness of the bacon.
At serving time, chop the garlic, parsley, and basil together. Add to the boiling soup and serve immediately.
Richard Olney reports that Lulu Peyraud echoes Jacques regarding water in this, and most, soups:
“…The simple vegetable soups are reserved for the family. A pity perhaps, for their purity of flavor is wondrous. Lulu says, “I never use stock in my vegetable soups because I hardly ever prepare pot-au-feu these days.” But then, she hastens to add, “Of course, I prefer soups prepared with water â€” with stock, you can’t taste the vegetables.”
Her version is much more straight-forward and less fussy than Jacques’s, and reflects the Mediterranean influences with the immediate inclusion of garlic and olive oil.
Soupe aux Choux
from Lulu’s ProvenÃ§al Table by Richard Olney
1 small white cabbage
6 cups water
½ pound carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
1 large sweet onion, sliced or coarsely chopped
1 pound potatoes, peeled, quartered lengthwise, and thickly sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed, peeled, and coarsely chopped
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon olive oil
1 thick slice ( ½ pound) lean, streaky salt bacon, or pancetta, cut crosswise into 12 sections, covered with cold water, brought to a boil, drained, and rinsed in cold water
Remove blemished outside leaves from the cabbage, split it from top to bottom, cut a wedge from the bottom of each half to remove the core, pull the leaves apart, and cut away and discard the thick ribs from each leaf. Stack the leaves, a few at a time, cut them into ½ inch strips, and cut the strips across into squares.
Heat the water and when boiling add the salt, cabbage, carrots, onion, potatoes, garlic, and bay leaf , and adjust the heat to maintain to a light boil, lid ajar.
Warm the olive oil in a frying pan, add the bacon wedges, and cook over low heat, turning them regularly, until lightly browned but not crisp. Add them, without their rendered fat, to the soup, simmer for one hour, add fresh ground pepper, and serve
Julia’s version seems to have come right from the table of a farmhouse in the middle of France, which is what I liked about the recipe and why I chose to make it. She also includes garlic (but not olive oil) in her recipe, which perhaps reflects a nudge from her ProvenÃ§al cooking partner Simone Beck? Or is it standard for this “French icon”? Or is “standard” Soup Au Chou (notice the old school spelling from Julia and Lulu, who are probably the same age) like “standard” American chili? I.e., it’s all relative…?
I’m also curious about the crisping of the bacon lardon in both preceding recipes, but not this one. It sounds a bit fancy, but it could be regional…?
Anyway, Julia says:
“This fine and uncomplicated peasant soup is a comforting dish for a cold winter day. In the Basque country, a good cabbage soup must always include a chunk of lard rance, their slightly rancid and much appreciated salt pork; otherwise, the dish is considered to lack distinction. In neighboring Béarn, confit d’oie â€” preserved goose â€” is added to the pot to warm up in the soup at the end of the cooking.
Soupe Aux Choux — Garbure
from Volume One of Mastering The Art of French Cooking by Julia Child
3 ½ quarts water
3 to 4 cups peeled, quartered “boiling” potatoes
1 ½ pound chunk of lean salt pork, lean bacon, or smoked, unprocessed ham
2 pounds or 3 quarts of roughly sliced cabbage
8 crushed black peppercorns, or a big pinch of ground chili peppers
salt as necessary, added near the end
6 parsley sprigs tied with 1 bay leaf
½ tsp marjoram
½ tsp thyme
4 cloves mashed garlic
2 medium onions studded with 2 cloves
2 peeled quartered carrots
2 to 4 peeled, quartered turnips
2 to 3 sliced celery stalks
1 to 2 cups fresh white beans, or half-cooked navy beans, or added canned white or red beans to soup 10 to 15 minutes before end of simmering
Place water, potatoes, and meat in the kettle and bring to a boil
Add the cabbage and all other ingredients. Simmer partially covered for 1 ½ to 2 hours or until the meat is tender. Discard parsley bundle. Remove the meat, slice it into serving pieces, and return it to the kettle. Correct seasoning. Skim off accumulated fat. If not to be served immediately, set aside uncovered. Reheat to simmer before serving.
Serve in a “soup plate,” accompanied by toasted french bread.
I added turnips from our root cellar, but did not add the celery or beans, as I didn’t want the soup to get too busy on my first try. The bacon I used was from my 2005 Pork Processing workshop, belly that was salt cured using garlic and red wine as the primary flavors, and it still included the skin.
When served it very much resembled a boiled dinner (which is another favorite of mine, no surprise), and had the same subtle salty vegetable aroma and flavor. But the bacon added something more, and melded directly with the vegetables. It was very good, especially on a dark and cold December evening with some of my wholewheat sourdough toast.
Like many soups, this is ideal for multiple meals because it stores will in the refrigerator, could be frozen for quick (microwave) reheating, and probably improves in flavor after a couple days in the fridge.
The second time I served this, I cooked the last few boudin blanc from my Christmas cooking, made super-luxe by skinning each sausage, rolling it in bread crumbs, and frying them in butter, and served those on the side. Yow!
And the broth was everything Chelminski had promised: rich and warm and forifiant; later in the week I heated up some left-over soup just to have a big mug of broth as a warm-up before lunch.