Today: A technique for bringing out the hidden beauty in cabbage -- and a soupy, risotto-ish cure for the end-of-winter blues.
Much as this winter has done unto us, storm by storm -- the best thing you could do for your dinner routine right now is take a cabbage and smother it.
How do you smother a cabbage, exactly? Let Marcella Hazan teach you. "It is shredded very fine and cooked very slowly in the vapors of its own escaping moisture," according to Hazan, in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. "The Venetian word for the method is sofegao, or smothered."
Smothering turns cabbage inside out, clean and crisp slipping toward caramel, eking out the sort of depth and charisma that can only come from cooking things forever.
I wrote to Victor Hazan, Marcella's husband and writing partner, to learn more about the story behind this soup. I can't bear to cut any of it:
"It happened to be one of our favorite soups when we were living in Venice. Marcella had a restlessly adventurous mind and it was a habit of hers to think of how a dish could turn into another. At table it was always something along the lines of, what do you think if we added this to that, and made of it say a soup, a braise, a pasta stuffing, a frittata, and so on.
Unfortunately, many of her intuitions never left the table, but they were subjects of a life-long conversation on taste, whether we were sitting down at dinner or out walking. And the conversation usually began with a typical Marcella question, how do you think it would taste if …? Taste was always the pre-eminent criteria. The cabbage soup may have survived table-side speculation because the idea of it excited me and when a suitable opportunity arose, I said, allora, Marcella, when are we going to have that cabbage soup?" - Victor Hazan
Here's how you do it:
Shear the cabbage down into springy tendrils, working your way around the core.
After pushing onions and garlic to their tender limits (Marcella encourages a deep gold) in a lot of olive oil, add the cabbage and a tiny splash of vinegar (this is smothering, not sauerkraut), and then basically leave it be. Stir infrequently.
It relaxes, then stews, then sweetens with time -- about an hour and a half. Once you get to this point, you can eat the smotherings for dinner next to eggs or sausage or chicken, or save them for another day, even freeze them. But I recommend, at least the first time, proceeding directly to soup.
So that's settled: you'll warm up your stock, tip in the much-diminished pile of cabbage, and stir in short-grain rice. Like in risotto, as the rice simmers, it lets off starch and plumps the broth.
At the very end, you'll beat in butter and Parmesan.
All told, this recipe will eat up a few hours, but it's largely hands-off, leaving you free to putter. And what were you planning on going outside for, anyway?
What you'll have is less soup and more very, very brothy risotto -- a happy liminal state between the two; more substance than the former, without all the attentive sloshing and stirring of the latter.
It's a soup (or soup-ish) that, once done, forces you to go quiet. After a few spoonfuls, you might murmur something softly.
There is a haunting quality -- a subtle, strong presence that Marcella's recipes always have. Nothing is clamoring; no ingredients bang up against each other. Richness and softness and tang and warmth are all there, in measured dignity.
Adapted very slightly from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (Knopf, 1992)
Serves 4 to 6
For the Smothered Cabbage, Venetian Style:
2 pounds green, red, or Savoy cabbage
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill
1 tablespoon wine vinegar, white or red
For the Rice and Smothered Cabbage Soup:
The Smothered Cabbage, from above
3 cups homemade meat broth (we used beef here, but chicken is also good), or 1 cup canned beef broth, diluted with 2 cups water
2/3 cup rice, preferably Italian Arborio rice
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thanks to our very own Food52 Associate Editor, Kenzi Wilbur, for this one!
Photos by Mark Weinberg