February, on its best behavior

February 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

I almost posted this entry without a photograph. The first night, when I decided, last-minute, as is my habit, that this dish might prove a nice blog post, I photographed in such a careless hurry, that I was too embarrassed to use any of the shots. At first I had planned to use them anyway, picked the least out-of-focus, bizarrely angled one and threw it up on the page. I rationalized that it wasn’t really that bad, kind of an instagrammed shot in tepid yellow light, and then I decided it was just kind of innocuous, and then I realized it was just kind of bad, but that was okay, too, I’m not trying to win any photography awards, blah, blah, blah. And then I went trotting around on the internet, reading some really lovely blogs I adore, and I came back here to finish up this post, and I couldn’t do it. I drafted a long, obnoxious post about the evolution of photography on food blogs,  then deleted it upon reading it the next day, somewhat revolted by how obnoxious it was.

One point worth salvaging was that I am amazingly shallow when it comes to the food I’m eating. I enjoy it more when it’s beautiful—or handsome, at least, and I know good and well that if it’s good looking, I give it a pass if it’s a mite underseasoned. I’d like to say this bias stems from the fact food’s appearance often conveys so much—quality of ingredients, care of preparation. But it doesn’t always tell the whole picture, and sometimes it’s a worthless metric. I’d love, for instance, to just write about the sounds the caraway seeds in this dish will make as they toast, tink tink-ing against metal as I shake them around in a pot; or their fragrance, like a floral resin, as they warm, and how the dish emerges from the oven, wholly transformed, crusty bits of bread caramelized to the edge of the pot, the frizzly ribbons of cabbage on the surface, burnished to a near sable from the broiler, the broth reduced and glistening like syrup, and for a reader’s imagination to fill the voids. When I’m writing about a dish whose looks don’t speak adequately to its merits this reader homework would be especially handy. But I also know how nice it is for the words and photographs to nod along together. So, reeking of contradictions and wanting everyone else to really love this dish, too, I re-made it for lunch, and took some photographs in natural light, which seems to be my only saving grace since I refuse to spend any time on learning how to photograph well, and now I feel even more shallow, but kind of gratified, too.

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This dish, a bread and cabbage soup nipped with caraway and thyme, happened the first time around because we had half a head of savoy cabbage whose ruffles were starting to scowl, and half a loaf of spelt bread that was losing its purpose. Bread soups, panades, bread gratins or tians, bread pudding, eh, what have you—claim their own category of preparation in my cooking, like pasta, soup, stuff on grits, stuff on toast. Ever since I tasted acorda, the Portuguese bread soup cooked to a silken pap, studded with shellfish, and almost defiantly liberal amounts of cilantro and garlic, I have been fanatical about the dishes that come out of cooking stale bread. I’m consistently inspired by the diversity of dishes that can result from a change of cooking liquid, style of bread, ingredients, baking dish, mode of cooking, etc., etc., and also the absolute gratification that comes about making use of an entire loaf of bread. Sometimes croutons pitch in for the job, other times bread crumbs, or the aforementioned stuff on toast, which never lets us down. But bread soups are something special.

Over the years I’ve accumulated a host of favorites that I use for guidance—Judi Rodgers’ famous chard and onion panade, and a lovely red onion and wine panade in the original Chez Panisse cookbook written by one of the restaurant’s early chefs, Paul Bertolli, both of which emerge from the oven with utterly succulent interiors and near-caramelized tops; a soothing long-simmered onion and tomato soup full of soft textures in Micol Negrin’s wonderful Rustico, all done on the stovetop and reminiscent to me of acorda, and a cabbage and bread soup in the same book, layered with Alpine cheese. This version was modeled after the last, with the addition of caraway, substitution of a vegetable stock made with dried porcini mushrooms in lieu of the meat stock she calls for in the recipe, and the subtraction of the cheese, which, having made it before precisely, the resulting dish truly didn’t seem to miss. As it was it was stick-to-your-ribs-lite, the earthy flavors of the cabbage and whole-spelt bread softened and rounded out by sweet onions and gentle cooking. It tasted like February, on its best behavior. We could have shared another serving, but perhaps it’s good we didn’t. These things, anyway, kind of smack of being grateful for what you have, and for having the know-how to make the most of them. Sometimes just enough is the just the right amount.

Cabbage and bread soup with caraway, adapted from a recipe in Micol Negrin’s Rustico

Serves 2.

This dish comes out soupy, thick, creamy, no matter what, but the texture will be creamier, more supple, the fewer days your bread has on it. We used a whole-spelt bread several days old the first time, and a regular levain bread just one day old the second time. The last was creamier and more supple in texture, more like a quick-acting panade, but I preferred the heartier, nutty, whole-grain aspect of the spelt version. More character, more delicious.

1/2 head savoy cabbage, roughly chopped

1/2 yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, crushed or thinly sliced

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus 2 extra teaspoons (or substitute 2 teaspoons butter)

5 ounces whole-spelt, rye, or levain bread, without crust, a day or a few old

1/2 t caraway seeds, toasted over medium heat until fragrant (omit if using caraway rye bread)

leaves from 1 branch thyme

sea salt and black pepper to taste

2 1/2 cups vegetable broth, made by simmering a few sprigs of parsley, a chopped carrot, a quarter of a chopped onion, green tops of a leek, a bay leaf, a few dried porcini mushrooms, and a pinch of salt in 3-4 cups of water for 30-40 minutes

Heat the oven to 425. Cut or tear the bread into approximately 1″ pieces, and toast them in a single layer in the oven for about 5 minutes, until fragrant but not dry. Set aside.

Saute onion in olive oil over medium heat until translucent and beginning to turn gold at the edges, 7 or 8 minutes. Add the thyme, garlic, and a turn or two of black pepper and cook another minute or two. Add the cabbage, 1/2 t salt and a few tablespoons of the stock and stir to coat the cabbage with the oil and stock. Reduce the heat and allow it to braise lightly, adding more stock as necessary if your cabbage is less juicy to start with, until it’s tender, bright in color and lightly plumped, 5-10 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper; the cabbage should be well-seasoned. Remove from heat and partially cover.

To assemble the soup, layer about half the bread in a small casserole or Dutch oven (I favor my little Staub cocotte). Cover with about half the cabbage, then the remaining bread and the last of the cabbage. I like to muss the top layer a bit so it’s more like a mosaic of bread and cabbage. Now pour in the 2 cups of stock (you may have some left over), pouring in concentric circles, first around the edges of the dish and into the center, than back out again, so that everything is moist. Drizzle with the additional olive oil (or dot with butter), and bake, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, then use a spatula to press the top down so that it’s basted by the liquid. Return to the oven for 15-20 minutes more, until the top is golden and caramelized in parts. A 5- to 10-minute rest before serving doesn’t hurt. Ladle into bowls and serve hot.

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