Really Good Tomato Soup

When it comes to most foods, admittedly, I’m a food snob. Not that I require my meals to consist of eight courses composed of the bestest of ingredients flown in from around the globe; but rather that I require my meals to be created from honest ingredients, well crafted, and consist of actual food (not processed food products).

My tendency toward snobbery is even more pronounced when it comes to tomato soup. I grew up eating a delicious pureed soup made from fresh tomatoes from my parents’ garden. When, on occasion, as a young child I was offered a bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup, I was convinced that the stuff in the dish in front of me couldn’t possibly be what it claimed to be, because it just didn’t taste good and had completely the wrong consistency: all watery with no texture to it.

So, of course, I now make my own tomato soup so that I can enjoy the delicacy the way it was meant to be eaten: from peak season tomatoes handled with care. It’s basically my mom’s recipe with a few of my own changes made to it.

Start off by dicing enough onions to generously cover the bottom of whatever pan you’ll be working in (Ideally, this should be the biggest pan that you own). As you cut the onions, get the pan heated up over a fairly low flame. Once the onions are ready to go into the pan, melt a generous helping of butter into the bottom of the pan (substitute oil if you must, but butter tastes better). Sprinkle into that oil a healthy pinch each of black pepper, white pepper, and cayenne pepper.

The heat should be low enough that the spices infuse the fat with their flavor but they should not scorch. Once the butter has melted and the spices are releasing their aroma into the room, add the onions to the pan along with a good pinch of salt. Stir them to coat all of the onion pieces with butter and spices. Set the heat as low as it can go, cover the pan, and leave it be for a good 20-30 minutes.

The onions will sweat while you prep the rest of the ingredients that you’ll need to make the soup. Chop up a few ribs of celery, a few carrots, and as many tomatoes as you can fit into the pot (in my case, this meant a half bushel). If you’re also going to be dealing with a large quantity of tomatoes, it’s okay to add them in stages: chop up as many as you can reasonably hold; then, once they’ve started to cook, chop up some more.

When you pick up the lid 20-30 minutes after you add the onions to the pan, you should discover that the onions are simmering in their own juices, which they have released under influence of the low heat and with a little help[ from the salt that you’re cooking them with. This is exactly what you want to see. Turn up the heat significantly and let them do their thing, but with a somewhat closer eye on their progress.

As the onions’ liquid evaporates away, the onions are going to start caramelizing on the bottom of the pan.
Their sugars start toasting, producing a lovely golden brown hue and developing that sweet, mellow flavor you’re after. To ensure that the onions don’t scorch and turn black, though, you need to stir the onions occasionally at first, and more frequently as they develop more color. As the onions reach a crescendo of a deep, rich, chocolate brown, they’re not going to look any better than that.

Add the celery, the carrots, and a good glug of brandy. Let the brandy cook off (in chef speak, this is called allowing it to reduce au sec, to the point of dryness). When this happens, add enough white wine to give the concoction in the bottom of the pan a soupy consistency, and then let it reduce au sec as well, stirring regularly. Allowing it to reduce so much concentrates the flavors and prevents the finished product from having a winy flavor.

When the mixture has reduced to the point that you can drag your spoon through it and it leaves a pronounced trail, add in your tomatoes with a little bit more salt (not too much, as this is going to reduce significantly), and let them simmer for a while. Stir occasionally.

The issue of how to process the tomatoes is the key area where my recipe diverges from my mother’s. She always squeezes the juice and the seeds from the tomatoes, thereby adding less overall liquid into the soup pot. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s significant flavor in those juices, and since the soup is going to be strained, anyway, the seeds aren’t going to get into the final product. I use the whole tomatoes and let the soup pot simmer longer (~20 hours total). If you want to work across an abbreviated time frame, though, feel free to squeeze out the juice and seeds.

Add in a significant portion of dried basil and dried parsley once the tomatoes have started to liquify.

Stir the herbs in.

Keep the heat real low, and let them do their thing. I also like to add in a bit more onion, carrot, and parsley at irregular intervals to help boost the background flavors.

When you get up in the morning, the level in the pot should have dropped significantly, and the low heat, which had the soup at a poach when you went to bed will now be significant enough for bubbles to break the surface. Turn off the heat and prepare to strain the soup through a food mill.

The food mill extracts the flavor, and permits some of the hearty vegetable texture to get through, while leaving behind most of the fibrous remains (such as the tomato skins and the stems from the basil and parsley).

At this point, it makes a tremendous vegetarian soup; or, if you prefer, you can combine it with some chicken stock and let it reduce some more to add in a bit of meaty flavor with the tomato base. Either way, serve with a garnish of fresh basil, sliced thinly and added to each individual bowl.

2 Responses to “Really Good Tomato Soup”

  1. Pei-Chin Says:

    Interesting recipe! I’ve never added brandy or white wine in my tomato it’s something I can try. :)

    Tomato soup is one of my fav too. My usual recipe is just onion, garlic, leek, with tomato. I like to use heirloom tomato as it gives the soup a meaty flavor.

    One question, I usually just use vitamix blender instead of food mill. Besides the texture, do u think they have any difference in terms of taste?

  2. SamChevre Says:

    Sounds good!

    A piece of random advice: if you process food in largish quantities, a Victorio strainer is a great investment. You can run a stockpotfull (5 gallons) of tomatoes, or apples, through it in a half-hour.

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