Saturday, April 18, 2009

Spontaneous Spring Celebration

Spring was announced with a loud POP at our house yesterday. So loud in fact that I ran down stairs expecting to see something had exploded. Instead, I found Roger, my husband, laughing hysterically.

To say the least, this last winter was miserable and cold. We endured day after day of gray, gloomy skies. Winter had started on November 7 and by tax day there still was no sign of Spring. That coupled with dialing down the heat to save money made me one unhappy camper.

Well yesterday morning, the temperature in Chicago finally made it into the upper 50s. Sun was streaming in through all the windows of our drafty old Victorian. I had spent my lunch hour, still in my winter jacket mind you, raking leaves in the garden. A few daffodils were open but I could see signs of more flowers to come. Bloodroot shoots were starting to unfold and startling, pink sprouts of Solomon's Seal were breaking through the dirt. I felt like life was worth living again.

Back at the computer on a Friday afternoon, I could hear bird song. The first day of Spring was unfolding outside. The temperature was climbing into the 60s. I was having a hard time concentrating on grant writing when I heard the loud pop.

Down in the kitchen, Roger was waving a bottle of champagne around. We had been given it for the holidays but we were not into celebrating at the time. The bottle sat all winter on the kitchen counter near a narrow window where a pot of forced paperwhite narcissus kept us off the suicide watch.

A beam of sunlight had come through that window, this year's first it seemed. It struck the dark bottle, warming it. Pressure built up and whammo!

So Spring announced herself at our house by popping the cork on a bottle of champagne. She forced us to knock off work early, take our glasses out to admire the daffodils and celebrate!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

All for the love of Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup

It's Passover and good ex-Catholic girl that I am I had a longing for sweet and sour cabbage soup.

This soup is what got me through college, literally. I worked in a deli and served up millions of gallons of the rich, steamy soup at a place called Mushroom and Sons in Highland Park, IL. The deli was my life for six shifts a week. I was picking up Yiddish to boot.

And yes, I cleaned under the steam table like in the Roches song. One time getting a jolt that threw me about 6 feet when the back of my hand touched a bare wire dangling from the heating unit. I found out that a wet rag on stainless steel is one hell of a good conductor.

The waitresses, myself included I must confess, would dig through the cabbage to find lumps of yummy skirt steak cooked to the point it would melt in your mouth. Ah, what memories.

But my challenge today was to make the soup without beef or sugar. You see, I turned a corner on Ash Wednesday this year. I gave up animal products and sugar. I feel so good it maybe I won't change back into a raving carnivore on Easter. Though to ask an Armenian to forgo lamb is quite a tall order.

I've been questing for the perfect vegetarian stock and after a few tries I came up with a great one to be the cornerstone of my vegetarian cooking. It's even dark colored like beef stock thanks to the yellow onion's peel.

The stock:

2 stalks of celery
2 big carrots
1 large yellow onion with the peel on
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
1/4 cup of parsley
4 cloves of garlic
2 quarts of water

Cut the onion in quarters. Cut the carrots and celery into rough chunks. Put all the ingredients into a stock pot. Cover. Bring to a boil and let boil for 30 minutes. Turn the heat down, and simmer for another hour.

Remove the vegetables from the stock. The stock was ever so slightly sweet from the onions, carrots and bay leaves.

Now it was time to start the soup! So I called up my dear friend and kitchen maven Marcia Streicher. I told her what I was up to and she laughed. She said the trick would be to get the sour quotient correct the first time because once the soup got too sour there was not much I could do except use sugar. So we went forward a 1/2 teaspoon at a time, with the phone perched on my shoulder, until I got what I wanted.

Marcia suggested I add Worchester sauce but it contains anchovies and is not vegetarian. I looked at the ingredients and noticed tamarind paste. I just happened to have some left over from a Thai recipe. If you don't try 1/2 teaspoon of apple cider vingar instead.

Here's the recipe:

1 1/2 quarts of vegetable stock
3 tbsp. of olive oil
1/2 of a large white onion
3 cloves of garlic, minced
15 oz. can of whole tomatoes, with their juice
1/2 head of green cabbage, shredded
1 1/2 tsp. of paprika
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/4 tsp. tamarind paste
A dash of red pepper

Saute the onions in the oil until translucent. I know it sounds like a lot of oil but this is a big pot of soup and I'm trying to simulate the puddles of rich fat I remember with such relish.

Add the garlic and saute 5 more minutes. Add the onions and garlic to the stock. Cut the tomatoes into chunks. Add them, the cabbage, paprika, lemon juice, tamarind and red pepper.

Bring to a boil then turn down the heat and simmer, uncovered, until the cabbage is wilted and the stock is reduced by 1/3.

Not the cloyingly sweet soup I remember. It's a better version.