- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Like many Americans, my first experience with tomato soup came from a little red-and-white can. As a child, it was one of my favorite comfort foods, along with the requisite grilled cheese sandwich served on the side.

As I grew older, I discovered a vast world of tomato soups: cold, hot, spicy, creamed ones, jellied ones, different colored ones — the possibilities seemed endless. I don’t want to get too carried away, but I think a good tomato soup may be the most perfect and satisfying meal in the world.

It’s fascinating to think that there was no red sauce for spaghetti in Italy until explorers came to the Americas and carried tomato plants back to Europe.

The funny-looking heirloom tomatoes we now see in markets and fancy food stores are those old-time varieties that nature alone produced before science began fashioning them into the perfect red hybrids we see most often today.

Many of the heirlooms have been growing for hundreds of years and survived only because a few smart farmers decided to try to keep the original plants around. The origins of the heirlooms are hazy at best.

In our time, trendy restaurants have become the beachheads for heirloom fruits and vegetables. Where once we would have a simple lettuce and tomato salad, now we find a salad of frisee and oak leaf lettuce with, perhaps, green zebra and black krim heirloom tomatoes.

Tomatoes can be broadly classified into either determinate or indeterminate, which are terms that refer to the plants themselves and not the fruit. Indeterminate varieties sprawl all over the place and continue to make blossoms and fruit until summers’ end.

In contrast, determinate varieties are refined and tidy. They grow to a point and stop, and their crop becomes ripe over a short period of time, which is why commercial growers love them so much. Most heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate. This may be why heirlooms taste so good. They have more of that wild flavor-producing foliage per fruit than their commercial determinate cousins.

In Sonoma County in Northern California where I live, an avid group of farmers have been growing heirloom tomato varieties for many years. The fruit comes in all colors of the rainbow and in every imaginable shape.

They’re often referred to as “ugly tomatoes” because of their odd ridges, bumps, stripes and weird shapes, but it seems these cosmetic irregularities, among other things, contribute to their appeal.

All of that said, I am not a tomato snob and I am a realist. When fresh tomatoes are impossible to find, it’s much better to cook with canned, which have generally been harvested ripe from the vine.

Try to find a good quality brand and know that not all recipes (such as the chilled heirloom tomato soup with summer relish that follows) will work with canned tomatoes. Better to save those for the occasions on which truly ripe tomatoes are available. It’s something delicious to look forward to.

My recipe for a simple gazpacho is an easy no-cook soup that can be ready in just a few minutes. Traditional gazpacho, which originated in Andalucia, Spain, often called for bread and lots of olive oil as part of the mixture to make it more hearty and filling.

It was really a poor workingman’s food and did not include tomatoes until they arrived from the New World. My version is much lighter and refreshing. All kinds of garnishes are possible, from simple basil, as I’ve suggested here, to fresh cooked shrimp or crab for something more elegant.

In chilled heirloom tomato soup with summer relish, unfortunately, you can’t use regular hothouse or typical commercially grown tomatoes.

They just don’t work. But when summer heirloom tomatoes are in season, select the most flavorful, vine-ripened ones you can find and you will be rewarded.

This uptown cold tomato soup is a great excuse to visit your local farmers market. For variety, I sometimes add up to a cup or so of freshly juiced cucumber, sweet red bell pepper or carrot to the soup mixture. (Remember that juicer you bought a while back? Well, here’s a good reason to drag it out.) A drizzle of herb-infused oil in place of plain olive oil would also be a tasty garnish.

Tomato and sweet pepper soup is a variation of the classic Tuscan soup, acquacotta, which translates as “cooked water.” It’s a delicious, simple, main-dish peasant soup that contains eggs.

They can be beaten and stirred into the soup or, for a more elegant presentation, they can be poached whole and added at the last moment on top of the bread, sprinkled with cheese and herbs. The soup is then poured in on top.

Thai-style tomato soup with shrimp and cellophane noodles is a simple soup that includes cellophane or mung bean noodles, bottled fish sauce and chili-garlic sauce. All are all readily available in Asian markets and in the ethnic food sections of many supermarkets, but you can certainly substitute other noodles, such as Japanese soba or even angel-hair pasta. Prepare these two kinds of pasta ahead, following package directions, and add them to the soup just as you serve it.

You may not feel quite as evangelical as I do about tomato soup, but at the very least you’ll have to agree an excellent homemade version, made with great tomatoes, is pretty good and in many instances one of the quickest meals you can put together. Here are some of my favorite tomato soups, those that I really love and can’t imagine living without.

A simple gazpacho

4 large red vine ripe tomatoes (preferably heirloom), about 2 pounds

1 cups peeled, seeded and diced cucumber (-inch dice), divided

2/3 cup diced sweet, red onion, divided

cup stemmed, seeded and diced red bell pepper, divided

1/4 cup or so fragrant extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons or so sherry or red wine vinegar, divided

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Fresh basil leaves

Place tomatoes and half of the cucumber, onion and bell pepper in a food processor and process to a smooth puree. Add 1/4 cup olive oil and 1 tablespoon of the vinegar and process again. Taste and add more olive oil and vinegar to your liking.Push the soup through a medium mesh strainer and discard solids. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Thin, if desired, with a few spoonfuls of water.

Cover and chill for at least one hour and up to overnight. Just before serving, stir in remaining vegetables, spoon into chilled bowls and top with basil and a drizzle of olive oil. Makes 4 servings.

Chilled heirloom tomato soup with summer relish

4 pounds coarsely chopped ripe heirloom tomatoes

1/4 cup or so balsamic vinegar, preferably white

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

Summer relish (recipe follows)

1 large avocado, peeled and sliced into 6 fans (see Note)

Creme fraiche (recipe follows) or thick yogurt

Fruity extra-virgin olive oil for garnish

Puree tomatoes in a food processor and force through a medium mesh strainer with a rubber spatula to catch all seeds and skins. Season to taste with vinegar, salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until very cold.

To serve, ladle soup into chilled soup bowls. Place 1 or 2 tablespoons of summer relish in center and garnish with sliced avocado fans, a dollop of creme fraiche or yogurt and a drizzle of olive oil. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note: To make fans, cut avocado in half, remove pit and discard and cut avocado into six segments. Slice each of the six segments a few times almost all the way from top to bottom but leave a little attached at the bottom so that you can spread slices apart a bit to create a fan shape. Sprinkling with a little lemon juice will help prevent avocado from turning brown.

SUMMER RELISH:

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

2 teaspoons chopped fresh mint

1/4 cup diced red onion

3 tablespoons diced red bell pepper

1/4 cup seeded and diced lemon (or other) cucumber

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a bowl, gently combine basil, mint, onion, bell pepper, cucumber and olive oil. Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.

Creme fraiche:

Lots of recipes call for creme fraiche, which is similar to sour cream but smoother and richer. In France, where it originated, the body comes from the natural bacteria in un-pasteurized cream. In America, however, unpasteurized cream is nearly impossible to get unless we milk our own animals. But the following simple recipe gives us a good approximation. Creme fraiche is great for cooking because of its rich flavor and stability. Unlike sour cream, it won’t break when heated.

1 cup heavy cream, preferably natural and not ultra-pasteurized or processed

2 tablespoons cultured buttermilk

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Stir together cream, buttermilk and lemon juice. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 6 to 8 hours, or until very thick. Refrigerate, covered, for up to 5 days.

Tomato and sweet pepper soup

1/4 cup fragrant olive oil

3 cups sliced onions

3 large (4 cups) stemmed, seeded, thickly sliced red or yellow bell peppers

1 tablespoon sliced garlic

1 cup diced celery

4 cups (about 1 pounds) peeled and diced fresh tomatoes or canned tomatoes in juice

teaspoon saffron threads

1 cup dry white wine

7 cups vegetable or chicken stock or water

Salt and freshly ground pepper

4 large eggs

cup freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese

6 slices toasted rustic bread

3 tablespoons mixed chopped herbs, such as parsley, chives, basil or chervil for garnish

Heat oil in a heavy soup pot and saute onion, bell pepper, garlic and celery over moderate heat until softened and lightly colored, about 8 minutes. Add tomatoes, saffron, wine, and stock or water, and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Puree and strain soup, if desired. Correct seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.

Beat eggs until smooth with a light seasoning of salt and pepper, and stir in the cheese. Remove soup from heat and quickly stir in the egg mixture to form egg ribbons. Immediately ladle soup into warm bowls over toast slices. Garnish with chopped herbs. Makes 8 servings.

Thai-style tomato soup with shrimp and cellophane noodles

1 2-ounce package cellophane (mung bean) or thin rice noodles (labeled vermicelli)

1 pound medium uncooked shrimp, shelled and deveined (save shells)

7 cups rich chicken stock simmered with shrimp shells for 5 to 10 minutes

2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce, or to taste

1 tablespoon Asian chili-garlic sauce, or to taste

3 cups canned diced tomatoes in juice

1 cup scallion, sliced diagonally and thinly

2 teaspoons hot pepper sesame oil, or to taste

cup loosely packed cilantro leaves

3 tablespoons finely sliced garlic, crisply fried in vegetable oil (see note)

Lime wedges

Place noodles in a bowl, cover with hot water and soak until softened, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain noodles and dump in a tangle on a cutting board and cut through crosswise and lengthwise to form about 4-inch lengths.

Strain shells from stock, return stock to pot and bring to a boil. Stir in fish sauce, chili-garlic sauce, tomatoes with their juice, scallion and sesame oil to taste. Add noodles and shrimp and simmer for a minute or two.

Ladle soup into warm bowls and top with cilantro and crisp garlic. Serve immediately, passing lime wedges separately for guests to squeeze into soup as desired. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note: Garlic can be fried up to a day ahead and stored in an airtight container. To fry garlic, heat 1/4 inch or so of corn or canola oil over moderate heat. Add garlic and slowly cook until golden brown, about 5 minutes or so.

Watch carefully. If oil is too hot, garlic will burn and become bitter, so try frying a tester slice before adding all garlic to oil.

John Ash is author of the James Beard Award-winning “Cooking One on One: Private Lessons in Simple, Contemporary Food From a Master Teacher” (Clarkson Potter).

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