Approximately a soup
Second: we are also into soup, apparently, which is why I’m going to tell you about yet another, our third soup in a row. I am so, so sorry.
This particular soup, however, is only approximately a soup. I don’t know that I would have even thought to call it a soup, actually, except for the fact that its author, the wonderful, recently departed Marcella Hazan, called it that. She called it Rice and Smothered Cabbage Soup. To me, it’s closer to a risotto, a risotto that starts with an entire head of Savoy cabbage, shredded and cooked very gently in plenty of olive oil, until it gives up the fight and goes sweet and tender and limp as a rag. (I am simile-impaired tonight. Limp as... the arm of a sleeping person? Limp as... soft as... a pile of silk ribbon? Ribbon that you can cook with rice and broth and then eat?) This soup exemplifies one of the best lessons I’ve learned from Italian food: namely, that cooking vegetables for a long time, until they fall apart, or nearly fall apart - what we non-Italians might wrongly call overcooking vegetables - works like no other method to draw out their intrinsic sweetness and deepest, fullest flavor. (Another good example of this is my friend Francis’s eggplant pasta sauce, which, if you haven’t yet made, do.)
I first learned about this recipe almost six years ago, from Luisa, who posted it on her site. I made it not long after, and I considered writing about it here, but I figured that was probably redundant. So I quietly kept making it and not telling you about it. I made it most recently last Saturday night, after a day spent traveling home from our family Thanksgiving celebration (accidentally leaving behind our stroller on the steps of my cousin’s house in California! Losing our off-site airport parking stub! Craning our necks to find our car as the kind, young shuttle driver made loop after loop after loop around the lot!), and Brandon and I sat on the living room floor after June went to bed and ate big bowls of it in front of our first fire of the season, and when we both went back for seconds, I thought, The people need to know.
You can’t really tell that it’s a soup up there under that small mountain of grated Parmesan, but that’s for the best, because it’s not the most handsome soup around. The cabbage is cooked for almost two hours, long enough that its color comes to approximate that of a canned pea. But. You take that cabbage and cook it some more, now with broth and rice. (This part only takes about twenty minutes, so if you made the cabbage ahead of time (it freezes well), it’s almost an instant dinner. Instant-ish.) And when the rice is tender and the soup is thick and steaming and has a bolstering, reassuring look about it, you stir in some butter and Parmesan, and then, if you live in our house, you eat it with more Parmesan on top.
Rice and Smothered Cabbage Soup
Adapted slightly from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
This soup is very thick, but not quite as thick as risotto. You could, in theory, eat it with a fork, but you’ll want to use a spoon.
I should also add that I didn’t make my broth from scratch. I used Better Than Bouillon Organic Chicken Base, my store-bought standby.
1 batch Smothered Cabbage (see below)
2 cups (475 ml) chicken or beef broth
1 cup (235 ml) water, and maybe more
2/3 cup (about 135 grams) Arborio rice
2 Tbsp. (28 grams) unsalted butter
About 1/3 cup (roughly 1 heaping handful) freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
Freshly ground lack pepper
In a good-size pot (about 4 quarts), combine the cabbage, the broth, and 1 cup of water, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir in the rice, and then lower the heat so that the soup bubbles at a slow but steady simmer. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the rice is tender but firm to the bite, about 20 minutes. If you find that the soup is becoming too thick, add a little water. The soup should be pretty dense, but there should still be some liquid.
When the rice is done, turn off the heat, and stir in the butter and the grated Parmesan. Taste, and correct for salt. Serve with black pepper and more Parmesan.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings - and try to save some for later, because these leftovers make a lunch worth looking forward to.
Smothered Cabbage, Venetian Style
Adapted very slightly from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
1 small yellow onion, chopped
½ cup (120 ml) olive oil
1 (~2-pound / 1 kg) Savoy or green cabbage, quartered, cored, and very thinly sliced
2 or 3 large garlic cloves, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. white or red wine vinegar
Put the onion and olive oil in a Dutch oven (or another pot of approximately the same size), and set over medium heat. Cook and stir until the onion is pale gold, and then add the garlic. Continue cooking until the garlic is fragrant and looks cooked through, a few minutes, and then add the sliced cabbage. Stir a few times to coat the cabbage with oil; then continue to cook until it’s wilted. Add a couple of generous pinches of salt, a grind or two of pepper, and the vinegar. Stir to mix, and then cover the pan and reduce the heat to the lowest setting. Cook, stirring occasionally, for at least 1.5 hours, or until the cabbage is very, very tender. If the pan seems dry at any point, you can add a tablespoon or two of water. When the cabbage is done, taste for salt, and season as needed.
This cabbage can be made a few days ahead of the soup, if needed, and it also freezes nicely.