- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Finally, cold weather has arrived in New England. For weeks, I watched as the thermometer hovered around 50 degrees and even climbed into the 60s on a few occasions. Then, almost like magic, a cold front swept in with icy winds and chilling temps.

At last it felt like winter, and I could cook accordingly. I’ve pulled out my cache of robust soup and stew recipes, and so have my friends.

Once the temperatures plunged, some neighbors suggested that we plan a Sunday-night supper featuring a cold weather menu. It would be a casual get-together served buffet-style in front of a big roaring fire. We decided to begin with bowls of soup and follow with a hearty chicken and chorizo paella.

A salad and warm crusty bread would accompany the main course, and for dessert we agreed on a warm pear tart.

I volunteered to prepare a roasted tomato soup scented with rosemary. The potage is made with plum tomatoes, which are lackluster at this time of the year, but when roasted until slightly charred and caramelized, burst with flavor.

Before they are put in the oven, the tomatoes are halved and seasoned with rosemary, coarse salt and freshly ground pepper, then tossed with olive oil and garlic.

Once roasted, half the tomatoes are pureed and half are chopped, then simmered together in chicken stock a few minutes.

Each serving of this rich, deep rust-hued soup is topped with toasted garlic croutons and a sprinkle of basil or parsley.

Totally satisfying, but not heavy in taste, this soup can be used as a first course or it can anchor a light meal. For the latter, you could accompany the delectable potage with an arugula or spinach salad tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette and garnished with shaved Parmesan.

The soup can be prepared a day in advance and the croutons several hours ahead, so there’s no last-minute work. A single recipe serves four but can be doubled easily.

Roasted-tomato soup with garlic croutons

½ cup olive oil plus extra for oiling the baking sheet

3 pounds (about 18 medium) plum tomatoes

21/4 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

11/8 teaspoons kosher salt, plus extra for seasoning soup

3/4 teaspoon dried crushed rosemary (see note)

3 large garlic cloves, minced

3½ cups reduced sodium chicken stock, divided

Garlic croutons (recipe follows)

2 tablespoons finely chopped basil or flat leaf parsley

Arrange a rack at center position and preheat oven to 375 degrees. Oil a large heavy, rimmed baking sheet very generously with olive oil.

Halve tomatoes lengthwise and remove membranes, seeds and stems from each. As you are preparing the tomatoes, place them, hollowed sides down, on a large plate or platter to drain.

In a large bowl, mix together pepper, salt and rosemary. Add the garlic and olive oil and whisk well. Add the tomatoes to the bowl and toss well to coat. Marinate tomatoes 15 minutes.

Arrange the tomatoes, hollowed sides up, on the baking sheet. Drizzle any remaining oil and seasonings in the bowl over them. Roast until tomatoes are browned on the bottoms and around the edges and softened, about 50 to 60 minutes. Watch carefully. When done, remove baking sheet from oven.

Divide the roasted tomatoes in half and place ½ of the tomatoes in a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pour 1 cup of the stock into the food processor and puree with the tomatoes for about 1 minute pulsing the machine. Coarsely chop the remaining half of the tomatoes.

Combine the chopped tomatoes, the pureed tomato mixture and the remaining 2½ cups chicken stock in a medium deep-sided saucepan set over medium heat and bring just to a simmer. Little bits of charred tomato pieces will float to the top. That’s OK; they add great flavor. Taste and season with salt, if desired.

To serve, ladle soup into 4 bowls. Garnish each serving with some croutons and a sprinkle of basil or parsley. Makes 4 servings.

Note: To save time, use crushed dried rosemary, rather than whole rosemary leaves that you crush yourself. Crushed rosemary can be found in the spice section of most supermarkets. McCormick’s is a readily available brand.

GARLIC CROUTONS

1½ tablespoons unsalted butter

1½ tablespoons olive oil

2 cups bread cubes (½ inch dice), made from a good-quality French baguette or country loaf

1½ teaspoons minced garlic

In a medium heavy skillet set over medium high heat, heat the butter and oil until hot. Add the cubed bread and stir and cook until light golden, about 3 minutes. Add garlic; stir and cook another 2 minutes until bread is crisp. Be careful not to let the garlic bits burn.

Remove and set aside. (Croutons can be prepared 4 hours ahead; cover loosely with foil and leave at room temperature.) Makes 2 cups croutons.

Betty Rosbottom is a cooking school director and author of “Big Book of Backyard Cooking” (Chronicle Books).

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