Open Up A Different Can
It's officially “soup weather.” Now don't go by me; I like soup in July. But for most folks, when leaves start to turn, thoughts start to turn to warm, comforting soups. And nothing says “comfort” like a nice steaming bowl of tomato soup. Maybe float a few oyster crackers or some seasoned croutons in there and serve it up with a grilled cheese sandwich. How can a cool weather lunch or dinner get any better? Well, it can be a little better if you make the soup yourself.
When I was a kid, tomato soup meant the famous red and white can from Campbell's. That's what Mom made at home and even the diners and small-town restaurants of my youth proudly displayed those iconic containers. Ever since a Campbell's chemist named John T. Dorrance developed a commercially viable method for condensing soup around 1897, the time-honored method for making tomato soup has been to open a can, dump the concentrated contents into a pot, add water, stir, heat, and serve.
A hundred years or so later, “ready to eat” soups like Progresso began to make inroads into Campbell's territory by marketing themselves as being more “adult” in nature. And I'll admit that as I got older, I tended to “doctor” Campbell's soup with basil and perhaps a touch of cream. Or I'd just buy a can of Progresso's tomato and basil soup. But now I don't do either anymore. Not since I reconnected with a recipe I used to use in one of my restaurant kitchens several years ago. The results are delicious and the preparation is almost as easy as opening a can. In fact, you do open a can. It's just a different can, that's all.
I was watching an episode of one of those cooking competition shows not long ago and one of the contestant chefs – a self-taught Italian guy – made tomato soup from canned tomatoes. And all the other “cheffy chefs” got all up in arms, scoffing and turning up their oh-so-sophisticated culinary school noses at the very idea of using canned product. Well, lah-ti-dah. I'm here to tell them – and you – that there ain't the first thing wrong with using canned tomatoes for soups and sauces. Generations of Italian cooks, from little mamme and nonne at home up to the big name “celebrity” chefs on TV, all know that, even though there's a lot to be said for garden-fresh tomatoes, for the other forty-eight weeks of the year, good quality canned tomatoes are perfectly acceptable. So all those highfalutin culinary schoolers can just stick their fresh tomatoes where the sun don't shine – an image that will take me a long time to erase from my mind – and get over themselves.
And with all that said, here's how you make great tomato soup at home.
What you'll need:
1 tbsp olive oil
1 small to medium yellow onion, minced
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup tomato paste
1 can (28 oz) peeled whole tomatoes, San Marzano preferred
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 or 3 tsp dried basil
And what you'll do:
In a Dutch oven or a large pot, working over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add in the minced onion, with a pinch of salt to sweat, and saute until translucent, about five minutes. Add in the minced garlic and cook an additional minute or two. Add salt and pepper and tomato paste. Cook, stirring occasionally, another two or three minutes. Add the tomatoes, the chicken broth, and the basil; stir to combine.
Using an immersion blender, blend the soup to the desired consistency. Simmer, uncovered, for about twenty minutes. Serve.
A few notes on the recipe.
Some recipes you'll find use butter instead of olive oil. Go for it. Either one works. I just prefer the extra layer of flavor the olive oil imparts.
Some recipes tell you to throw in your onions and garlic at the same time. Don't. Again, build layers of flavor. It's the Italian way. Besides, garlic burns very easily and will turn brown and bitter long before the onions are translucent.
Watch your salt; you don't want salty soup, especially since you've already used a little salt to help sweat the onions.
And if you prefer white pepper to black, that's okay by me.
I like tomato paste in a tube, but you can use one of the little cans if you want. You'll just wind up with half a can of paste that you'll have to figure out how to store or use up.
I like whole tomatoes in this recipe, but diced or crushed will work as well. After all, you're going to puree them in the end anyway. But please, please, please use San Marzano tomatoes if at all possible. Yeah, they're a little more expensive, but they're well worth it.
Low-sodium chicken broth, please. Remember what I said about salty soup.
And if you've got fresh basil that you want to use in place of dried, that's okay, but remember to add it later in the cooking process.
If you don't own an immersion blender – go get one! No, seriously, you can just dump the soup into a regular blender or a food processor to puree it. Then you can dump it back into the pot to finish it. See, wouldn't a stick blender be easier?
This soup only takes twenty minutes or so to cook. If you want to simmer it a little longer, you can do so. It will reduce and concentrate the flavor a little more. Speaking of flavor, if you have a Parmesan rind saved in the freezer (you do, don't you?) this would be a good place to use it for an extra flavor element. And you might want to keep a pinch of sugar handy in case the tomatoes are a little too acid. A knob of unsalted butter would also tame the acid and add a nice smooth, silky finish. Totally optional. You can also make the soup creamy by adding – guess what? – a dab of cream. But do it very last thing or you risk curdling the cream.
If you find yourself with leftover soup, put it in a clean glass jar or container of your choice – remembering that plastic stains – and keep in the fridge for about a week. Or ladle it into a freezer-safe vessel – freezer bags work well – and freeze it for a couple of months.
Try it tonight. You might still keep a can of condensed or ready-to-eat in the pantry as a backup, but I can pretty much guarantee this will become your go to tomato soup of choice.