How to Tart Up Tomato Soup

Personally, I don’t think tomato soup needs tarting up, I really like it.  Who nowadays, however, does make tomato soup from scratch or even dreams of ordering it in the unlikely situation of a restaurant listing it on its menu? It would strike one as being so passé, correct?, so gastronomically over and done with.

Tomato soup is the sort of fare one might associate with an Agatha Christie tale of mystery and murder on the Orient Express, in a TV period-drama series (right up Downton Abbey’s gastronomic alley I’d say), Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books maybe, or even in short stories set in drab hotel restaurants of the 1950s.  Cream of Tomato Soup would probably have been included in Derek Cooper’s 1967 “The Bad Food Guide” from which I quote the following extract under “A Certain Lack of Dignity”:

“He always starts with soup whatever it is … He has half a bottle of Blue Nun Liebfraumilch whatever he’s eating and she has a Port to start with and then half a bottle of some kind of Sauternes.  He has boiled potatoes with every lunch and either peas or carrots or, when it’s in season, asparagus which he’s very partial to.  She picks her way about among the expensive dishes but usually has steak Diane because she likes the drama at the table.”

Makes for depressing reading all of this.  So much in contrast to the soup’s cheery bright red colour.  I don’t suppose the hue of  this soup played any prompting role in Andy Warhol’s painting of Campbell soup tins/cans in 1962?  Head scratching doubt, probably not.  “While visiting the Pittsburgh-born provocateur in the midst of Campbell’s Soup Cans’ production, art dealer Irving Blum was so impressed that he offered Warhol a show at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. … Not only was the Ferus Gallery show Warhol’s first solo exhibition of pop paintings, it was also the first time Pop art had been displayed on the West Coast. No matter what the response was, this was a history-making event” (http://mentalfloss.com/article/71814/16-things-you-might-not-know-about-andy-warhols-campbells-soup-cans).

History in the making and tins of soup, hey.  Whatever else can be discarded from the descriptives of tomato soup, artistic primacy and fame now cannot.  We can definitely say that, thanks to Warhol, tomato soup is ‘historic’ in some way.  So why is it that it has become a rarity and most likely not even heard of by people under fifty years of age?

I do remember tomato soup at the dinner table when growing up abroad but not at home in Italy – home being chez my Nonna, my Italian grandmother after whom I was named.  As your average Italian home cook still abiding by the only cuisine she knew, i.e. regional food, my Nonna who was from Frascati never made the Tuscan Pappa al Pomodoro (which is a thick tomato soup mopping up a lot of dry bread).  I had heard of “pappa al pomodoro” by the time I was eight only because the singer and actress Rita Pavone sang a song about it in a children’s TV series based on a book called The “Diary of Gian Burrasca” (translation: Johnny Tempest), featuring the scrapes and adventures of the exuberant/naughty boy Giannino Stoppani as he fought against the rules of the grown ups and the dickensian system of a boarding school.  Well, this Johnny Tempest’s song said that a pappa al pomodoro was worth fighting a revolution over but it didn’t sound very enticing to me, I have to say.

Click on the photo to activate the video.

The first time I did get to eat a pappa al pomodoro, I smiled inwardly remembering how much I had loved that TV programme. For the record, much as I liked the taste of my first pappa al pomodoro, I can’t say I was blown away by it.  It was nice but nothing to write home about.  I did instead have an Aha! moment with the version I got to eat last month, in the countryside in Tuscany, and indeed I think I shall write a post about it, it was that good.

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Back to tomato soup.  While I continue to this day to love Heinz baked beans on toast, I don’t remember ever buying a tin of any soup, it just didn’t seem ‘right’ to me, even back in the day.  We didn’t ‘do’ tins in our Italian home, the only ones I spotted were those containing plain plum tomatoes.

Commercially produced tomato soup used to be available in a dry version too, in packets.  All one had to do was pour boiling hot water over the mixture and wait for it to rehydrate, even in a large mug.  This was quite a staple of mine during my last year at boarding school.  I’d add some cubes of cheddar to it and hey presto! my hunger pangs were curbed.

I suppose I grew up thinking that tomato soup was somehow French or English in origin.  Witness my surprise then when I found out that the Italian chef, gastronome and food writer Ada Boni included Cream of Tomato soup in her now legendary cookery book “The Talisman of Happiness” published in 1928.  I found out via my next door neighbour Rossella, who also loves to cook, only a few years ago, who pronounced it delectable.  More eyebrow raising when I discovered that some béchamel was included in her (i.e. Ada Boni’s) recipe.  I had never had it served like that before.  I ventured to make it and it was fine, very nice indeed.

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As the authors Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham comment in their book “The Prawn Cocktail Years”, “It is a curious thing that when you go to the bother of making a proper home-made tomato soup with very ripe tomatoes (essential), fresh herbs, decent home-made stock and cream, you end up with a soup that looks identical to and has an almost interchangeable consistency with what is very probably the world’s most popular canned soup: Heinz Cream of Tomato.  The taste, however, is quite different.”  Their version  is similar to Ada Boni’s, except for the addition of garlic and whipping cream.  Ada Boni eschewed any kind of stock, too, and added a bayleaf in the process, as well as parmesan at the very end.

All this to say that it is high time we resuscitated the popularity of tomato soup. It can be served with buttery croutons, or cubes of mozzarella, or grated parmesan.  Or, it can be served as a main course when paired with cod.  Talk about tarting it up!

My friend Liz made this recipe for us a week ago and I found it so delicious that I nearly lost sleep over it (not really, but I did send her a congratulatory whatsapp just before crashing at almost 1 a.m. and that’s after having imbibed a gals-night quota of fermented grape juice, if you catch my drift).  The long and the short of it is that I just had to have a go at replicating last night.  And here is what I did.

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There is a secret ingredient: a vanilla pod.  So what you see in the above photo is a biggish saucepan containing lots of olive oil (extra virgin), 1 vanilla pod and 1 clove of garlic, slightly smashed.IMG_1329IMG_1330These were the freshest tomatoes I could find.  I cut them in half and showered plenty of salt over them.  The salt tames their acidic content as well as bringing out the best in terms of taste.  I then placed them in the saucepan and turned the heat on.IMG_1332I let them cook with the lid on for 45 minutes, checking up on them now and then.IMG_1335This is what they looked like 45 minutes later.  I removed the lid and let them cook for another 15 minutes, again over a fairly low heat.  So, cooking time all in all about 1 hour.

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Set aside for now.IMG_1348This is the cod I had bought from my fishmonger’s that morning.  Enough for two to three servings.  I removed the skin myself.

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I placed the pieces of cod in an earthenware/terracotta pot and poured enough olive oil inside to cover them.  I also added a few pepper corns.

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Yes, an awful lot of olive oil – enough for them to be able to swim in it.  The olive oil, by the way, is Quattrociocchi’s extra virgin.  Definitely one of my favourites.  It’s from near the town of Alatri, in Lazio and has won countless prizes in competitions all over the world.IMG_1351I had turned the fan oven on at 180°C and placed the pot in it to cook … until it was ready, which took around 20 minutes.  Now, this is where I differed from Liz.  She told me she had baked her cod at about 90°C, half the heat I was dealing with.  The reason I took this short cut was that … it was getting really late and I had two hungry people looking forward to their dinner.  Liz’s cod took about an hour to cook if I remember correctly.IMG_1352While my cod was baking, I got out my trusty Italian style food mill.

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I removed the garlic and the vanilla pod from the cooked tomatoes.  The vanilla had swelled up.IMG_1354I processed the tomatoes and what you see above is what got thrown away: the seeds and the skins.IMG_1355And this is what came through: a luscious, silky cream of tomato.  Tasting pretty good already.  It is amazing what the vanilla can do!  You can’t actually taste a vanilla flavour as such and yet it confers a je ne sais quoi to the tomatoes that brings on a happy mood.IMG_1356Liz had used the olives from Liguria known as Taggiasca that cost an arm and a leg and are worth it because they are so wonderful. I didn’t have any so made do with a more humble black olive. I peeled the olives off their pip or stone or whatever you call that thing that can crack a tooth.

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Liz had fried her olives in some olive oil.  I went crazy and using a small saucepan, sautéed some extra garlic, a teensy amount of red chilli, roughly torn basil leaves and the bits of olive.  Only for the  briefest of sautéing time.  I poured the oil through a sieve and set aside.

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I put the cream of tomato back onto a source of heat, tasted, and then added a tiny amount of salt that it definitely needed (but no sugar hey, the vanilla saw to that – plus the tomatoes were pretty good stuff).

The cod came out of the oven sizzling as you could see in the video.

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I got so excited at this point.

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I removed the cod from the oil.  I poured the oil I had filtered into the soup, as well as the olive bits,  I added fresh basil.

I plated up and served.

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It as not as fine as Liz’s insuperable and for me Proustiaan first taste of this recipe but it was jolly good, even if I say so myself.   Mmmmm … I’m wanting some more even now, looking at the photos.

IMG_1365Fortunately for me and my risk-taking decision to use a much higher heat, the cod turned out to cook to a beautiful consistency.

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One final comment … these photos are of the recipe seconds before the soup got eaten so my concession to aesthetic presentation took a bit of a back seat.  I revel at the photos I see on instagram and other food blogs and I really do admire the fine photography of the bloggers in question.  I can’t keep up I’m afraid.  What you see in my photos is what real food looks like in a real home with plenty of hungry people silently, or not as the case may be, telling you to stop the faffing about with the iphone camera now, and can we please sit down and eat.

P.S.  In case you are wondering about what happend to the olive oil the cod got cooked in.  I filtered it and am going to be frying some veggies in batter with it tonight.  Waste not, want not.

4 thoughts on “How to Tart Up Tomato Soup

  1. This sounds most delicious and the addition of a vanilla pod not one I have tried but the end result sounds amazing and I am totally with you on the food photos very rarely I get a brilliant one but most of the time as you say it is a photo of real food before the hungry Horaces in my jump on it and devour it 🙂

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  2. Ah, Jo, I haven’t had tomato soup since I was a boy. And yes, it was Campbell’s from a can. They were a staple here in the US back then. And you’re right, it’s high time to bring back *real* tomato soup. Especially if it’s garnished with that oil-poached cod. Really, I know this post is about tomatoes, but the image of those pieces of cod swimming in simmering olive oil will haunt my dreams until I try it myself… !

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  3. What a great post, Jo. I would never have thought to include vanilla in tomato soup, so I’ll have to try that. I don’t think I have ever made tomato soup. About 25 years “Tuscan” tomato soup (which was not the kind with bread, but had cream in it and dried basil, so not really Tuscan) was very popular in restaurants here. I think what you made is called a tomato coulis here if they do serve it in a restaurant. The cod confit is very nice as well. You can save on olive oil by putting the cod in a ziplock bag; then you will only need enough oil to surround the fish. Confit is a lot like sous-vide of course. Oh and I love taggiasca olives and always have them on hand.

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    1. Dear Stefano, thank you so much for your comment(s) and apologies for not answering sooner. The bread and tomato soup in question, which is truly delicious when well made, is the ‘pappa al pomodoro’ of course. Dried basil wouldn’t do it I’m afraid. And I had tomato soup again just the other day (I was in a hurry and that’s all I could rustle up given what I had in my fridge and pantry). Not the same as this one, just a plain one. A soffritto with onion and a bayleaf, parmesan at the end. It’s just so simple, it’s a shame we don’t think to make it more often.

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