I’m leaving work soon, in order to go to the garden, pick a bunch of stuff and make The Soup.
Yes, it’s a thousand degrees outside and the humidity is off the charts – but it’s still time for The Soup. It’s always time for The Soup.
This dish comes from my home kitchen.
We eat it at least once a week during the winter – and probably at least twice a month in the summer (especially when the produce is coming in).
The Soup is pretty much a version of vegetable beef that I learned from my Grandma Onie.
To be clear, hers was the best soup I’ve ever eaten in my life. Seriously. Even if it was 200 degrees outside, if she called to say The Soup was ready, we were literally giddy.
When Onie made The Soup, she made a lot of it. Then she’d ask us to bring over quart jars and ice cream buckets, so we could get our share.
Gladly, we kids would run to get whatever containers we could find . . . because there was something magical in her concoction.
The basis of the soup is that it is only made with ground beef. Grandma Onie always argued that roasts should solely be centerpieces of a meal while ground beef begs to be used in soups. So I learned early on that hamburger is the only way to go in this situation.
There are two other components that have to be present in The Soup: tomato pulp/juice and cabbage.
I remember in the summertime, Grandma would cut up whole tomatoes, straight from the garden, and just let them cook down into the meat. The fresh tomatoes added something so special – skins, seeds and all.
“No need to strain, or peel, or core or run through the colander,” Grandma Onie would scold and proclaim if questioned about her tomato tactics. “The skins, the pulp, the seeds, they are good for you. They make you regular!”
So in a quest to “be regular,” the rough-chopped tomatoes would meet the browned meat in a pot she called The Soup Kettle. The pot wasn’t used for anything else and The Soup was made in nothing else.
Then, she’d add the cabbage with an ample amount of salt – Onie said the “salt stuck to the cabbage.” That was her scientific reasoning.
The need for cabbage, she said, was “something from the home country that I can’t explain,” but it was absolutely necessary. “Without it, you might as well not bother.”
She’d put so much cabbage in The Soup Kettle that it didn’t seem it would all fit. But she’d jam down the heavy lid and soon all the cabbage would disappear. The brew would simmer and when the lid was later removed, there was plenty of room for the rest of the ingredients.
I remember she’d dump in something from a bottle of the Kitchen Klatter brand. Onie was a Kitchen Klatter gal – I remember she’d listen to a cooking show on the radio in the mornings (which was called Kitchen Klatter) . . . and she faithfully bought and used their extracts.
Then she’d throw in whatever else she had on hand, in order of its resiliency . . . potatoes, carrots, onions, green beans, corn, peas. Everything had a rustic chop and a purpose.
In would go a bunch of pepper, to be followed by more salt and a prayer said in German.
While the soup bubbled away, Grandma sat in her chair at the kitchen table and performed art in a bowl. She dumped in flour, baking powder and salt. With her hands she mixed the dry ingredients and then in the middle formed an indentation which she always called “The Grand Canyon.” In that well, she cracked eggs until she felt she was done. Then, with her long fingers she would gently mix it all together. She’d drizzle water over the dough until her skilled eyes told her to stop.
“Now it’s time to drop the little buggers in,” she’d announce.
With sticky fingers and another German prayer, she’d drop small balls of dough into the hot soup. Then she’d slam on the lid and warn everyone in the room “to not peek or the dumplings will be ruined! Ruined!”
And everyone obeyed.
The situation in The Soup Kettle would quietly ensue. When, and only when, Grandma Onie declared the cooking process was complete – that was the time to come running with the buckets and jars.
She used an old silver ladle to pull out the contents. Once the containers were full, there was one more step.
“Now, it has to be left alone,” she’d say.
Yes, there was no eating the soup while it was still hot. The rule was that it had to sit on the table and do what Onie called “festering and settling.”
In other words, it had to completely cool to room temperature.
And that took more time, which was hard for impatient kids waiting for this special delicacy that could only be found in that specific kitchen.
However, we knew that it would result in a wonderful supper . . . it always did.
Eventually, it came time for me to take up the manufacturing of The Soup – the ladle was passed, so to speak.
While I’ve maintained the integrity of the key ingredients – hamburger, tomato pulp/juice (no skins because that’s a long story) and cabbage – The Soup has evolved over the years.
First off, I don’t have whatever that black oil-like substance was from Kitchen Klatter, because the products are no longer made. So that has been omitted from Onie’s recipe.
Secondly and sadly, I don’t include the dumplings. In the early years, I tried. Oh, Lord knows I tried. For whatever reason, I couldn’t exactly reproduce those little pillows of heaven. Maybe my “Grand Canyon” wasn’t deep enough, maybe my eyes don’t gauge the moisture count properly. Maybe it’s my inability to pray in German. Eventually, I gave up the ghost of dumplings past and stopped trying to make them just like Grandma’s.
But I’ve stayed true with the main players.
I never drain the grease off the hamburger (that was frowned upon, because she said “that’s where the flavor lives”).
The cabbage is finely shredded – and always of the green variety because “we don’t need any of that fancy purple stuff.”
And I annually can tomato product specifically for The Soup.
I don’t know what happened to The Soup Kettle used by Onie, but I do use my same pot each time I make the soup. However, I start it on the stove and finish it off in the slow cooker.
I’ll admit, I don’t let mine cool down – we eat it as soon as we can because we aren’t very good at festering or settling. But I have to say that the longer it sits in the refrigerator, the better it gets . . . although I’ve never seen it last more than a few days because we consume it so fast.
Who knew such a simple, homespun dish can put a smile on your face? Maybe it’s the texture, maybe it’s the tradition, maybe it’s about the memories.
Whatever it is, there is a weird but real joy in making The Soup.