Marcella Hazan's Rice and Smothered Cabbage Soup

March 19, 2014

Every week -- often with your help -- Food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: A technique for bringing out the hidden beauty in cabbage -- and a soupy, risotto-ish cure for the end-of-winter blues. 

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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.

Molly Wizenberg waited almost 6 years before deciding more of the world needed to know about this soup, after seeing Luisa Weiss write about it in 2008. I don't have that kind of patience.  

Marcella Hazan's Rice and Smothered Cabbage Soup 

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
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

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here. 

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

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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Sf2oak December 29, 2015
I made this with green cabbage, boxed veg stock, and a rind of parm. Divine. and my 6 yr old ate it up. so good on a cold winter night.
Victoria C. October 16, 2015
I made this with savoy cabbage, and it is one of the most scrumptious dishes ever. I did not add the cheese to the pot; I had diners sprinkle it on individually so if there's any left over, the cheese won't be in it. Also, the leftovers thickened, and I served them heated up as a vegetable/starch instead of a soup. This is a real keeper!
guineverek February 10, 2015
Made this over the weekend (the full soup recipe) and even though I'm not a huge cabbage fan, I loved it. It is definitely like a loose risotto more than a soup, especially after the first day. But the flavors are exactly as described - warm, subtle, earthy. My only criticism is it needs a hint of acid to cut through the richness of the cheese, butter, and oil. I squeezed some fresh lemon over it after I re-heated, and it was divine.
Pablo C. February 5, 2015
Actually tried it and don't like it at all. It's a terrible idea to incorporate rice into an already reduced stock base, by the time you want to serve it, it's really thick, but not in a concentrated full of flavor way, but in a starchy thick unpleasant way. Not a soup and not a risotto either. Also the color turns like baby vomit.
fearlessem March 29, 2014
Made this tonight and it really is genius -- more than the sum of its parts. Marcellas Essentials is the one cookbook that has NEVER led me astray!
susan G. March 20, 2014
This is similar and delicious (with some subtraction of heat, and addition of carrots and potatoes).
mcs3000 March 20, 2014
Such a beautiful post, Kristen! I love that you didn't cut any of Victor Hazan's words.
healthierkitchen March 19, 2014
"Allora"!! I had forgotten about this recipe, so glad for the reminder.
SUSAN March 19, 2014
THANK YOU MARCELLA! I have one of your cookbooks, THE CLASSIC ITALLIAN COOKBOOK", since the 1960's where I found the most perfect recipe for basic marinara sauce. I was a young bride to a very handsome Italian and was wanting to learn to cook correctly (his family was spread out between Italy and the U.S.) Your recipe saved the day and many more since then. I have passed it on to my daughters & daughters-in-law and anyone else who would listen. You are a genius in the kitchen - THANK YOU! I am definitely going to try this cabbage soup.
lulu7 March 19, 2014
Making this tomorrow night as I have all of the ingredients on hand! Thanks for such a delicious sounding not even care if it is supposed to be the first day of spring!
Greenstuff March 19, 2014
I also make something a bit like this but with more vegetables besides cabbage. I think of it as "minestrone risotto."
Robert March 19, 2014
I have made something similar (but nowhere near as lush) with bulgur (briefly soaked) in with the oil and a little onion, with the chopped cabbage steaming on top. I have cabbage at home right now!
samanthaalison March 19, 2014
I love this recipe - I saw it on Orangette and have made it several times this winter. I like throwing a very small amount of crumbled sausage in as well.
CinfulAZ March 19, 2014
Somehow I've happily lived to my mid-40s and never heard of this soup. I'll make it, gladly, but I'd be remiss if I didn't comment on the sheer pleasure I took reading Kristen and Victor's writing about it. Thank you. OH! And I just read all the other comments - wow! Congratulations to you, Kristen! Thank you too, Food 52. Please build in the option for us to "like" other people's comments - there are many on this page I do.
Gestur March 19, 2014
Not to take anything away from Marcella—one of my favorite cookbook authors—this recipe is very close to the one I've made for many a year from Faith Willinger's wonderful cookbook: Red, White and Greens—The Italian Way With Vegetables. In Faith’s book it’s one she attributes to her muse, Torquato Innocenti, her favorite farmer at the Santo Spirito market in Florence, and so it has the name Torquato’s Rice and Cabbage Soup. In Torquato’s version it’s made with a vegetable broth which you make from the outer leaves of the cabbage, parsley, garlic and carrots, but during the growing season I always go out to my kitchen garden (l'orto mio) and grab some interesting leaves of spigariello, chicories, fresh celery, some chives and anything else that catches my fancy. Smelling that veggie broth cooking—and its slow transformation along its way—is at least half my pleasure in making this lovely toothsome soup. But as Marcella says, the trick is to cook first the red onion and then the cabbage slowly for a long time to caramelize those veggie sugars. Then sit down and enjoy it with a nice vino bianco, say a Pecorino from Le Marche, and that’s eatin’ real high off the ground.
Vivienne P. March 19, 2014
Do you think you can replace the risotto with quinoa? March 19, 2014
I am making this now! Looks so nourishing. Thank you.
Jacqueline R. March 19, 2014
wow this looks less like a recipe and more like a religious experience - can't wait to try it!
Brette W. March 19, 2014
jenniebgood March 19, 2014
I love your interpretation Jaqueline!
Barbara W. March 19, 2014
We have made a recipe of my husband's Ukrainian mother for many years, called Kapusta, which means cabbage in Ukrainian. It is also cooked "to death" which brings out its deep wonderful flavor. We add shredded onions, shredded carrots and salt and pepper.
Barbara Wasylenki
AntoniaJames March 19, 2014
Barbara, my Polish dressmaker gave me a recipe for Kapusta years ago, which I've enjoyed ever since . . . . hers calls for adding sauerkraut in an amount equal to the fresh cabbage, once wilted, + your start with a few slices of bacon or ham, for flavor. In our house, this is the quintessential comfort food. I've played with this basic formula over the years to add a few of my own touches, and have been thinking about posting the recipe here for ages, but have had way too much going on. You've inspired me! ;o)
Chris March 20, 2014
My Polish grandmothers also made Kapusta but they would first sear boneless pork ribs, then add the veggies and a pound or so of store-bought sauerkraut. A complete meal--the ribs and cabbage compliment each so well!
Chris March 20, 2014
Oops, forgot the handful of barley along with the veggies.
DebS March 19, 2014
Molly Wizenberg blogged about this soup this winter as well -