Tomatoes in the Kitchen: A Tale of Two Soups
By Cyndy Crist
I’m starting to get restless for the taste, texture, and great pleasure of garden-fresh tomatoes. But I have a long wait – in Minnesota, we’ve only gotten to the time of year when tomato growers can start to think about hardening off their seedlings (see Dorothy’s post earlier this week). That means I still have to make dishes that work well with something other than fresh tomatoes.
My inspiration today came in part from the folks at Canal House Cooking. If you don’t know their work check out one of their beautiful seasonal books or their website. Their latest book is Canal House Cooking Volume No. 7: La Dolce Vita. They also have daily posts at “Canal House Cooks Lunch”, which are inspiring, not to mention hunger-inducing. Recently, they made several dishes selected to use up things languishing in the back of their freezer. I have a deep freeze in the basement in which I store extra Farmers’ Market produce to get me through the long winter, and I was pretty sure I still had some bags full of plum tomatoes. Sure enough – I found three, each with about one pound of tomatoes. I was on a roll.
Next, I took a look at my two most recent food-related e-book purchases for ideas and found two I wanted to try. One was in Vegetables, Revised: The Most Authoritative Guide to Buying, Preparing, and Cooking, with More than 300 Recipes, a beautifully illustrated and comprehensive tome published by Ten Speed Press. The other I found in Smart Chefs Stay Slim: Lessons in Eating and Living From America’s Best Chefs, published by New American Library; its subtitle, “Lessons in Eating and Living from America’s Best Chefs,” makes me think I’ll find it useful in all kinds of ways. Both recipes seemed quick and easy enough to make in the small window of time available to me. I checked the pantry and fridge, made a list of the few ingredients I didn’t already have, headed to the nearby coop for what I needed, and I was set to go.
I started with a recipe from Adato’s book, Naomi Pomeroy’s Creamy Asian Tomato Soup. I was impressed by Pomeroy when she competed on the third season of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, which added to my interest in a recipe that sounded delicious, and I had almost everything needed, including tomatoes , soy sauce, fish sauce, onions, garlic, paprika, and red wine vinegar. The only thing I was missing was a can of low-fat coconut milk (I had a can of “regular” coconut milk, but it just felt wrong to use it in a recipe created for its low calorie virtues). The trip to the market fixed that.
Although I’m inclined to improvise a bit when I cook (one reason I’m more of a cook than a baker), I did just two things that differed slightly from the recipe. One was using a can of roasted tomatoes along with one of locally canned heirloom tomatoes (the latter from St. Paul’s Heartland Restaurant and Farm Direct Market, where Beard-nominee Lenny Russo makes and sells fantastic, locally sourced food). I liked the smoky flavor the roasted tomatoes added, a result that could also be achieved by using smoked paprika or smoked olive oil. The other was that instead of blending the soup until smooth, I used an immersion blender to achieve a chunkier texture.
As I was finishing the soup, I was reminded of how important acid is in cooking, a key lesson I’ve learned from Top Chef and Iron Chef. The last two ingredients in the recipe, added when the soup is finished, are red wine vinegar and sugar. I loved the taste before adding them and debated about whether to use them. But I’m so glad I did, as their addition really sparked the flavor. Delicious! And one more word – for those who may not be fans of coconut milk, I didn’t detect much coconut flavor in the soup; instead, it primarily added creaminess. The soup was a great success, and I’d be surprised if it took me 30 minutes from start to finish. This one is a keeper.
James Peterson’s recipe was even easier. It called for just four ingredients – tomatoes, salt, pepper, and heavy cream. I primarily used the frozen plum tomatoes mentioned earlier, but also added a few locally grown tomatoes that I found at the coop (yes, they were grown hydroponically, but they looked and smelled good and I thought the fresh flavor would be a plus). I was reminded that one benefit from freezing whole tomatoes is how easy it is to slip the skins off as they thaw. Since plum tomatoes tend to have far less juice and fewer seeds than larger tomatoes, I decided to forego seeding them, and since they were frozen, I didn’t bother chopping them, knowing I’d be able to easily break them up with a wooden spoon as they cooked. I did peel, chop, and seed the fresh tomatoes and discovered how effective the Zyliss tomato peeler is (and realized how much easier it would have been if I had remembered to peel them before they were halved and seeded!).
Beyond that, the recipe is hardly a recipe – heat the tomatoes in a pot over medium-low heat until they’ve achieved the texture you want (some might want a shorter cooking time that retains more fresh flavor and texture, while others might prefer a more fully cooked, smoother product). At that point, simply stir in heavy cream, salt, and pepper to taste, heat through, and you’re ready to go.
I decided I wanted just a little more flavor and had intended to use fresh basil, but when the coop didn’t have any, I opted for a nice, fresh bunch of dill. Its bright flavor didn’t disappoint. I also decided to use the smaller quantity of cream called for in the recipe (Peterson suggests 1/2 to 2 cups of heavy cream per 5 pounds of tomatoes), not to be virtuous but because I find great pleasure in swirling a little cream into the soup in my bowl. It’s all about the little pleasures, right? The recipe doesn’t call for blending, but anyone wanting a smoother texture could easily add that step. And my husband, who arrived in the kitchen as I was finishing this soup, suggested that the addition of a little crumbled feta cheese would be great. I think that would add some great tang and texture and intend to try it.
And so, here I sit, about two hours after I started, with two batches of tasty tomato soup that will feed us well for several days. One is the epitome of simplicity, the other not much more complicated but with a more complex flavor. I’ll definitely make both again – and, oh my, how wonderful they’ll be when I can make them with fresh-from-the-vine local tomatoes. That day can’t come soon enough for me.
Naomi Pomeroy’s Creamy Asian Tomato Soup: As adapted by Allison Adato
2 Tbsp cooking oil
1 ¼ cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, chopped (1 rounded Tbsp)
1 28-ounce can chopped canned tomatoes
1 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp pepper
½ tsp paprika
1 Tbsp dark soy sauce
2 tsps fish sauce
1 can low-fat coconut milk
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar, or to taste
2/3 cup (or more) water to thin
Heat cooking oil in heavy-bottomed pot. Cook onions until translucent and add garlic. Cook for a minute more.
Add chopped tomatoes, salt, pepper, and paprika. Add soy, fish sauce, and coconut milk. Simmer 5 minutes to meld flavors together. Add sugar and vinegar and adjust season to taste.
Puree in a blender until completely smooth. Serve in bowls with optional garnish of chopped cilantro.
Cook’s Note: You will note the directions above do not reference the water. I did not add it and assume the author’s intent was to mention that water could be added to taste to achieve the desired thickness and texture