Several Sundays ago, a routine bike ride home turned ugly. After frolicking in the local swimming hole, we headed home with a 20-minute pit shop at the grocery store. Imagine the beauty of riding into a mountainous sunset while completing errands. Now picture howling winter winds slapping my forehead and wet hair sliding like icicles across my exposed cheeks. We charged home with panniers full of vegetables and milk. On the way home, my baby—whom we like to affectionately call “the little king”—woke up from his nap and screeched the whole way home, protesting the bone-chilling ride. As soon as we pulled into our garage, we hoisted him out of the bike seat and dashed indoors.
I strode into the kitchen, searching optimistically for dinner. Did magical culinary elves drop by with a five-course gourmet meal, preferably with piping hot soup? No luck. I enveloped the little king into a woven wrap to comfort him as I got to work.
When I talk to parents with young kids and friends who work intellectually demanding jobs, I often hear how they become a puddle of mental exhaustion at the end of the workday (whether you work in or out of the home). They tell me how they struggle to follow new recipes, even if they know their way around a kitchen, because it takes energy to do something novel. “Who has the time to fuss over chicken cacciatore from scratch?” this Redditor wrote. A few parents at my baby wearing meetup mentioned they avoided dishes that require paying attention. A recipe that requires them to do critical steps at precise times inevitably fails. I can never predict when I have to drop everything to stop my baby from chewing on the toilet brush. That’s why boiling and roasting are my go-to winter cooking techniques. That night, with my chattering teeth and achy knees, boiling dinner saved my hangry family once again.
I opened the fridge and discovered peeled garlic and chopped green onions. Alex prepped these aromatics the day before to speed up weeknight cooking. Into a large pot went a handful of each with canola oil on medium heat. As the aromatics sizzled and browned, I checked on baby. If he were sobbing and thrusting his legs or thrashing his head, I would have turned off the stove and sat in my recliner to nurse him until he calmed down. Instead, he watched me cook with curious eyes, tracking my hand movements.
I turned off the heat to wash and chop the Napa cabbage. I stirred the cabbage into the aromatics and turned the heat to medium-high. I emptied two cartons of Costco chicken bone broth into the pot and covered it with a lid. While waiting for the soup to boil, I looked for my next task.
NOTE: Because bone broth is high in protein, it boils over if you turn the heat to high and leave the lid on.
Once I recovered from birth enough to start cooking again (about the time the little king turned 3 weeks old), I boiled almost all our food. Baking—another butt-saving, set-it-and-forget-it technique—allows me to make dinner without much concentration. (Before you get the wrong idea and think I’m talking about roasting chicken or baking lasagna from scratch, most of my baking involves reheating frozen pizza, frozen burger patties, and superfoods like breaded cod fillets, a.k.a. fish sticks.) While the meal boils or bakes, I can do other things, knowing that dinner marches ahead, like prepare a salad, unload the dishwasher, or plant my forehead on the cool oven door pretending to nap.
Glancing at the pot, I noticed the soup lacked a crucial ingredient: protein. Lacking the energy to deal with touching raw chicken or fish, I looked to Alex for help. His unfocused eyes, glued to another Youtube video about the Ukraine war, signaled his hungry stupor. No help there. I made the decision to cube a block of tofu.
Wrapping my left arm around the little king, I restricted his flapping arms while I tossed the tofu cubes into the soup. I seasoned everything to taste with a heaping teaspoon of salt (tofu needs all the help it can get to avoid tasting bland). Turning the heat down to a simmer, I let the cabbage braise for 20 minutes while I put away the groceries.
As the soup cooked, I rummaged through the pantry seeking ways to spice it up. Sometimes, I add wheat noodles or mung bean vermicelli. Last week, we used homemade beef broth, so I shredded and mixed in the rib meat that came off the bone. Other times, I add diced carrots or zucchini, broccoli florets, or quartered green beans—these veggies add color and texture—depending on which vegetables look the most anemic. Yesterday, I dropped in shrimp, romaine leaves, and shiitake mushrooms—for umami—leftovers from last weekend’s hot pot.
Ready for dinner, Alex assembled his spicy Chinese mustard and turnip pickles (the package calls them “pleasant vegetables”) with wood ear mushrooms on the table. I collected my toppings: roasted seaweed and red pepper flakes. I gulped down my steamy soup, the tender cabbage barely putting up any resistance. The little king stuffed a pudgy fist of shrimp into his face, no match for his 6 tiny but sharp teeth.
While we enjoyed dinner, the cabbage continued simmering. I prefer my cabbage so soft that the stems are translucent and can’t hold their shape. When Alex makes this soup, he simmers everything for 15 minutes (or less) if he wants dinner sooner, leaving the cabbage with an al dente bite. I left the soup sitting overnight. The next morning, I strain the leftovers and pack them to take to work for lunch.
The first time I ever heard of cabbage soup in my teenage years, my parents’ friends told me about boiling green cabbage in water as a diet food. I tried it one weekend. I wrinkled my nose at the smell of the bland, stinky gruel. It must work by squashing one’s appetite. My version of cabbage soup celebrates flavor with layered aromatics, broth, and toppings galore. You can make the soup fancy by squeezing in lime juice, sprinkling chopped cilantro, or pouring in hot sauce. This is easy comfort food, ready in 30 minutes, taking about the same time for pizza delivery. Most importantly, I can stop and restart cooking this soup any time, and it still turns out great. I never have to choose between cooking dinner and looking after my kid, even in the face of an unexpected phone call, diaper explosion, or ibuprofen pills raining down from the topmost pantry shelf like confetti at a gender reveal party.
That’s the magic of boiling.
Braised cabbage soup with tofu
- 1 Knife
- 1 Chopping Board
- 1 Soup Pot with a lid
- 11 shiitake mushrooms, optional
- 1 head Lettuce, optional, leftovers that needed to be used
- 2 cups shrimp, defrosted for a few days that needed to be used
- Gather the ingredients. This means look through your fridge and decide what you'd like to eat or what you need to use before it rots. Take it easy on yourself and realize whatever you make will turn out fabulously. If you don't have any broth, use tap water (the vegetables and other ingredients will flavor your soup).
- Wash and chop up your aromatics. I like using green onion and garlic. You can also use ginger, chives, onions, shallots, or any aromatics in the allium family. Wash and chop your cabbage (or whichever vegetables you plan to cook). Put the aromatics and oil into a soup pot. Turn the heat to medium-high.1 medium Cabbage, 4 cloves garlic, 3 sprigs Green onion, 1 tablespoon canola oil
- Once your aromatics begin to sizzle and brown on the edges (this could take 2-5 minutes depending on how quickly your stove heats up), stir in the chopped vegetables so that you mix the vegetables with the oil. If anybody is melting down, turn off the heat and come back later.1 medium Cabbage, 4 cloves garlic, 3 sprigs Green onion, 1 tablespoon canola oil
- Empty the broth into the soup pot. Cover with a lid if you have one but leave the lid askew so it doesn't completely cover the pot. Leave the heat on medium-high and bring the soup to a boil. If you have trouble paying attention and don't want the broth to boil over, leave the heat on medium (it will take longer to boil but at least you don't have to clean up any spillage). If you are in a rush, increase the heat to high but keep in mind you will have to watch it carefully to avoid boiling over.1 carton Chicken broth
- While the soup heats to a boil, drain and cube your tofu. Once the soup is boiling, remove the lid and add your tofu. Avoid stirring vigorously because you may crush and break up your tofu, especially if it's a soft or medium-soft variety. Place the lid askew on the pot again and allow the soup to come to a boil on medium-high heat. Once the soup comes to a boil, turn it down to a simmer. Stop and restart cooking if you need to take care of anybody (you can also skip straight to season to taste if you are ready to eat).1 block Tofu
- While waiting for your soup to boil, rummage in your fridge to find any other ingredients to put in your soup. I found leftover mushrooms, romaine lettuce leaves, and shiitake mushrooms from the past weekend's hot pot. I added those. You may have other leftovers like grilled chicken breast, ham, wilting broccoli, or cilantro you want to add. Prepare, by washing and/or slicing, your ingredients. Add them to the soup and turn the heat to medium-high. Once the ingredients look cooked or the soup has come to a boil, turn the heat to simmer the soup.11 shiitake mushrooms, 1 head Lettuce, 2 cups shrimp
- Try a spoonful of the soup. Season it to taste if it's not salty enough for you. Unless you've added really salty ingredients to your soup, add at least a pinch of salt to enhance the flavors.1 teaspoon Salt
- Simmer the cabbage for as long as you like depending on how soft you like your vegetables. Turn off the heat when you're happy with the textures and flavors in the soup.
- Serve a bowl of soup with your favorite toppings.
- Enjoy your braised cabbage soup!
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