Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Meditation on Tomato Soup

I have made homemade tomato soup many times. I don't put a lot of thought into it. It's tomatoes along with my own stock or water and whatever else I feel like adding. It has a texture more reminiscent of minestrone - but it tastes pretty good. And it's healthy.

One thing my tomato soup lacks however is the taste and texture of "tomato soup". You know what I'm talking about: the red and white can. These folks have basically defined the classic North American tomato soup. They have been making it for well over 100 years. I usually don't like processed, pre-made convenience food (no less from a can), but if a product has been around for a long time, and has been tested and perfected, then...sometimes...it's okay. For example, some other such products that fall into this category for me are Heinz Ketchup, Tabasco sauce, Lea & Perrins, Canada Dry ginger ale, Grey Poupon mustard, Collier's Welsh Cheddar, Oreo Cookies, Triscuit crackers, and Strubbs Pickles (well, anything from Strubbs is good in my book). These winning formulas are as old as the hills, and because the consistency of the taste and texture are so important, the producers don't tend to mess with the products too much over time. Do they have preservatives? Sure. But it's all about moderation and tempering these classic prepared foods with your own best shots at home cooking. For a while, my wife and I would try to dispell our foodie guilt over tinned food by buying these new fangled organic versions of the classics. They were very expensive. And you know what? They simply don't taste good. They don't even look good. I don't know if we've been brainwashed by Campbells when it comes to tomato soup, but just because you slap an 'organic' sticker on your tinned soup, does not make it better. In fact, I have found for the most part, it is to the contrary.  But, alas, I digress.

So, on to tomato soup. Tonight I wanted to make tomato soup that was close to what came out of a tin without all the preservatives. So here's what I did:

First I took a tin of good quality tomatoes (look at that, not even out of the gate, and I'm already opening a can).  I strained out the liquid into a bowl and then halved the squishy stewed tomatoes and got them on to a cookie sheet with some olive oil. Salt is not necessary as the particular brand of tomatoes I had was salted (which is slowly destroying my case for lowering the preservatives). Then put in a 375F oven for about 20 to 25 minutes. The tomatoes will start to dry out, caramelize and intensify in flavour. Then push the tomatoes through a strainer or a food mill (there ain't tomato seeds in tomato soup). Now you will have one bowl with the reserved liquid from the tin of tomatoes and  a second bowl containing the strained roasted pulp of the tomatoes themselves.

After a gentle roasting

You'll need a bit of elbow grease to get it all through

Now, get a pot on the stove. Pour in a generous glug of olive oil and follow that with half an onion, finely diced. Frizzle that around for a few minutes, then dump in a heaping table spoon of flour and  one very small potato, peeled and diced finely (the flour will add a bit of thickness to the soup and  potato will release starch and dissolve into an additional thickening agent). Toss that around for a bit. Season with salt and pepper, throw in a bay leaf, then deglaze with some of the reserved tomato liquid. Let that reduce a bit and allow the potatoes to soften somewhat. Then pour in the remainder of the liquid, then the roast tomato pulp and enough stock to thin it into a soup like consistency (I'm using my reserve from the chicken stock I made the other day). Let this bubble along for about ten minutes, then add in one or two peeled and deseeded fresh tomatoes (sometimes called a 'concasse'). Allow the tomato to cook down and soften. Then get your immersion blender and blitz the works (make sure you get that bay leaf out first). Now comes the part of the recipe for which I think I erred. When you look at the ingredients on the side of a can of Campbells Tomato soup, it comes as no surprise that the third ingredient is fructose - basically corn syrup. This is an ingredient that is hugely over-used in American processed foods and has a long political history. It's not necessarily bad in small quantities, but I'm willing to bet large quantities of it are responsible for the diabetes epidemic down south. Nevertheless, it adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the soup that is very definitive. Okay, it's more like a 'je sais quoi' - sweetness. So I opted to sprinkle some organic cane sugar into my soup followed by a grate of nutmeg. I tasted, and wow, yes, this is getting closer. So I added a tiny bit more sugar and nutmeg. And therein lies my error. Do not over sweeten your tomato soup. It took on an alarming, ketchup like flavour. It goes without saying that the kids liked it (yummy, daddy made ketchup soup). However, I will not add that much sugar next time. Either way, the texture was bang on perfect and if I dial back that wee bit of sugar next time (and completely refrain from the nutmeg), we might be on to something. Stirring in cream at the last minute: optional.

Anyway, I salvaged mine by dousing it with Tabasco which gave it a bit of a sweet and spicy thing. I topped it with a melted cheese crouton and some greens. Not a bad trial - this is how I cook - keep on trying till it's perfect.

Post Script:

When I was 19 years old, an old girlfriend taught me a recipe that used Campbell's Tomato soup. The recipe goes thusly:

Hot Dog Soup
1 Can of Campbells tomato soup
6 Oscar Meyer Wieners
2 tbsp of grated Kraft parmesan 'style' cheese
2 dashes of Tabasco

Make soup according to instructions. Chop up wieners into bite size chunks, then add to soup during the last two minutes of cooking. When hot dogs are cooked through, add the cheese and the Tabasco. Serve hot. Pairs well with an oaked Chardonnay or a warmish Molson Export.

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