Thursday, October 24, 2019

The tomato soup we have on repeat

Whether your grandma made it from scratch or you drank it straight from the red and white can, chances are, if you were born in the U.S., tomato soup features prominently in your reel of childhood memories. My kids are picky when it comes to tomato soup, pronouncing most restaurant versions "too chunky" or "tastes like ketchup." The version we enjoy at home—a weeknight favorite of all family members—is a version so dead simple, it captures the pure essence of tomatoes and spoils us for all other tomato soups. And this time of year, even though nighttime chills have set in and the neighborhood Halloween decorations have gone up, we can still find plenty of locally grown tomatoes kicking around. Better yet, they're often a bargain because of unsightly blemishes or less-than optimal shapes. I buy them in bulk from Wilklow Orchards at my local Brooklyn market.

You'll find some recipes that ask you to blanch the tomatoes and strip off the skins. I strongly believe you can skip this step for two reasons. 1. If cooked and blended, the skins actually hold a lot of flavor and nutrients. I learned this ages ago during a brief internship at the restaurant Arpège in Paris, where I was fortunate enough to work directly with chef Alain Passard, he who worships at the altar of the vegetable. He used every last scrap of everything and made a delicious ravioli filled with long-cooked tomato skins that melted and mellowed until they tasted like candy. You're missing out if you aren't incorporating them into the soup. 2. With a good blender or a plain old mesh sieve, you can eliminate the undesirable textures caused by errant bits of skin. 

My line in the sand is seeds. A few won't hurt, but if you don't seed your tomatoes all those seeds will cause an unpleasant bitterness. So take them out. But make sure not to lose the super special, not-so-secret ingredient that makes this soup extra bright and tomatoey: tomato water. Tomato water is where a lot of a tomato's flavor resides, so don't throw it out!

Finally, if you're not a fan of heavy cream or prefer a vegan version of this soup, by all means feel free to eliminate or dial it back. I like the way it rounds out the soup and gives it some richness, but I also believe the soup can stand on its own, without dairy. 

Last, but definitely not least, the fixins: There are some who think that the best part of tomato soup is the grilled cheese served alongside it for dipping, and I don't completely disagree. I like to grate together various abandoned ends of cheese onto sliced sourdough, sandwich it, and fry it in butter in a hot skillet. Sometimes I'll cut them into little crouton squares and set them loose on top of the soup. Sometimes, if I have leftover polenta in the refrigerator, I'll cut it into batons, dredge them in a little flour, and fry them in olive oil until the outsides are crisp and brown. Avocado toast or excellent, untoasted bread both make nice tablemates for a good, warm bowl of tomato soup.  

Simple Tomato Soup
Serves approximately 4 

  • 4 lbs or so red, ripe tomatoes
  • 1 small yellow onion, peeled and diced OR 1 small leek white and 1 small shallot, both peeled and diced
  • 3 TBS extra virgin olive oil
  • a few sprigs fresh thyme and/or a bay leaf
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Basil leaves to garnish
  1. Prepare the tomatoes. First, have a strainer handy, set over a bowl. Cut tomatoes into quarters (more if they are large) and remove the parts where the stems were attached. Running your fingers inside the segments, scoop out the seedy bits into the strainer you have set up over the bowl. Once that's done, chop the tomatoes a few times more. Keep the straining seeds off to the side. 
  2. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan or le Creuset, heat the olive oil over medium and add the chopped onion (or leek and shallot) and thyme/bay leaf. Sprinkle a little salt on top and sauté over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or so. Make sure not to brown the onions. Add the tomatoes, raise the heat a little, and cover. Cook this way, running at a good simmer but not boiling too hard, around 20-30 minutes or until the tomatoes are soft and falling apart.
  3. Get the tomato water ready by stirring the seeds around in the strainer to encourage the liquid to pass through. Discard the seeds; keep the tomato water. 
    tomato water
  4. Remove the thyme stems/bay leaf from the tomatoes (may require a little fishing). Discard.
  5. Blend the cooked tomatoes in a blender until completely pureed. Add the tomato water and blend some more—should be velvety smooth. At the very end, mix in the cream and salt to taste. I don't like to dictate salt amounts, but I will say add enough good pinches, tasting in between, to bring the flavor up. Serve hot with basil scattered on top.