Tomatoes Rule the World! (part 2)

In part 1, I talked about how the humble tomato went from an ornamental curiosity to a staple of Italian cuisine. In today’s post, let’s discuss how tomato soup became an integral part of my childhood.

Picture a cold, blustery winter day in the Canadian city of Calgary. I return from playing outside, all rosy of cheek, and snotty of nose. As I huddle at the kitchen table, wrapped in a blanket, shivering and coughing, my mother places a steaming bowl of tomato soup, and grilled cheese sandwiches before my rheumy eyes. Slowly, as I dip sandwiches, and slurp soup, my vitality and health miraculously restore. By the end of my lunch, I have recovered sufficiently to go back outside and begin the cycle all over again. For a good many winters of my childhood, this was my routine every Saturday.

When I got a bit older, the very first thing I made all by myself was tomato soup. Granted, it’s not that impressive, considering all I had to do was dump a can of condensed soup and some water in a pot, and not let it boil over or burn. But I thought it was a monumental accomplishment. Soon enough, I was adding things like cut-up hotdogs, peppers, onions, really anything I could get my hands on. Tomato soup had become a comfort food, and a canvas for my artistic interpretation.

For many of us, Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup is the way tomato soup is supposed to taste. Those childhood memories are powerful, and hard to overcome. But like a lot of childhood memories, the tastes of your callow youth don’t usually translate to adulthood. Try a can of soup now, go ahead, make some up, I’ll wait. (Twiddling thumbs and humming to myself.) Are you back yet? I’m guessing the soup doesn’t taste quite as good as you remembered, does it? That’s because our palates grow more sophisticated as we get older (at least for the majority of us). The sad fact is, when I try canned tomato soup now, all I can taste is the corn syrup.

The only solution to this conundrum is to make our own tomato soup, and reclaim those childhood memories. This is our chance to eliminate the excess sugar and salt, and make a delicious soup that is also healthier than the original. (Seriously, check out the ingredients on a can of soup. It’s 20% of your sodium intake, 20% of your potassium intake, and the second ingredient is high-fructose corn syrup. Blecch!)

Tomato-Basil Bisque

(Prep time: 10 minutes. Cook time: 30 minutes. Serves 2-4.)

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  • 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, diced (approx. 1 1/2 cups)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tbsp Italian seasoning
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 cup dry cooking sherry
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 2 cups chicken broth (or substitute water)
  • 1 796 ml can crushed tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, sliced chiffonade-style

Heat the oil in a large sauce pan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic to the pan, reduce the heat, and gently sweat the onions for 10 minutes. This is an important step, you want the onions to become soft and sweet, and almost melt into the oil. Make sure to stir the onions occasionally, and don’t let them brown. After 10 minutes, add the sugar, pepper flakes, Italian seasoning, and bay leaf to the pan. Increase the heat to medium-high, and fry the spices with the onions for 2 minutes, until they become fragrant.

At this point, stir in the sherry, and allow it to boil for 2-3 minutes, or until the liquid has reduced slightly. (You don’t have to use sherry, but I like the depth of flavour it brings to the finished product. If you want to use white wine, make sure it is a little sweeter, like a Riesling.) Now you can add the rest of the ingredients in order. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low, and simmer your soup for 15 minutes. Take this time to go out and play in the snow, or sit in front of a window with a beer, and imagine you’re outside.

After 15 minutes is up, taste your tomato bisque, and adjust the seasoning. The first thing that will hit you is the complexity of the flavours. This is definitely soup for adults, mature and sophisticated. Now you can pair your soup with anything you desire. For me though, it has to be grilled cheese sandwiches. Here are a couple of tips for making a great grilled cheese. First, never cheap out on the bread. If you have a bakery nearby, do yourself a favour and buy a nice loaf of rye bread (they’ll even slice it for you if you want). Second, use freshly grated cheese for your sandwich. Using grated cheese will allow the heat from the pan to penetrate and melt the cheese more quickly, which means there is less chance the sandwich will burn. I like to use a blend of aged cheddar, Gruyere, and a little parmesan cheese. Finally, take your time when you cook your sandwiches. You’ll find that your sandwiches will turn out perfect every time if you cook them over medium heat for 5-6 minutes per side. The cheese will melt properly, and your grilled cheese won’t fly apart when you try to flip it.

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Growing up sucks, but thanks to the tomato, you can pretend to be a youngun’ for a little bit longer. (Just don’t lose those mittens on a string that Nana made for you).

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