Tomato soup is the chicken noodle soup of non-meat-based soups: an overlooked and underappreciated as a cornerstone of American comfort food. Though its frequent partner, the grilled cheese sandwich, has received its due in the cyclonic world of food trends, tomato soup has yet to be really embraced by food bloggers and Good Morning America hosts. This is fine with me! Get away from my soup, you awful swooping buzzards.
Spring is the worst season. Its only positive attribute is that it isn’t winter, and even winter, in its early months, is festive and pretty and you can go skiing and there’s a long vacation for Christmas and New Year’s. When we “look forward to spring,” we are actually looking forward to summer. Anyway, there’s basically nothing to eat in March, but I’ve been making tomato soup like a couple times a week lately and it’s done a pretty decent job of blunting my seasonal depression. It’s a perfect dish for this season: It’s warm and soothing and soulful to get us through the cold dampness, but it isn’t actually all that heavy of a dish; it’s a transitional food, reminding us that times will get better.
There are many famous tomato-based soups — minestrone, gazpacho, cioppino — but these differ fundamentally from what I think of as the classic American tomato soup. For one thing, in minestrone and cioppino, the tomato is a broth to support the real focus of the soup — either vegetables and beans and pasta or seafood. And gazpacho is, of course, cold and also very rustic: big chunks of tomato and cucumber and who knows what else. American tomato soup instead draws its inspiration from — I think — the Polish zupa pomidorowa, a strained or pureed tomato soup often served with rice. But it really came into its own with Campbell’s ridiculously successful canned tomato soup, which is basically just tomato paste to which you add water. I love Campbell’s tomato soup; most canned soups suffer from the process of either removing water to create a concentrate or overcooking ingredients to become shelf-stable, but tomatoes take to concentration just fine. That said, we can very easily make a tomato soup that hits the Campbell’s notes but packs more, or different, flavors.
The key for making tomato soup hit that nostalgic, mom-cooked-it feeling is in the texture. American tomato soup is smooth above all else, a puree to end all purees, silky and homogenous throughout. A classic tomato soup does not have chunks of tomatoes. (That’s some kind of Italian shit; get it out of here!) Your tools to achieve the right texture are two-fold: fat and a good immersion blender.
(Immersion blenders, or stick blenders, are great tools because you barely have to wash them. Have you ever washed a blender or a food processor? I would rather just eat a chickpea salad than be bothered to make hummus because I know hummus requires cleaning the god damn sharp blades and irregular containers with weird holes and contours all over them. Most of my recipes have some kind of idiot sacrifice in them that I made to keep the number of dirty dishes as low as possible. When shopping for one, don’t get the cheapest one; you want your blender to have at least two speeds and some decent power, or else you’ll never get as smooth a puree as you want. I have this one from Cuisinart and it works pretty good, though The Sweet Home recommends this one from Breville if you want a fancy one.)
You should get the best canned tomatoes you can for this, but honestly if all you can find is, like, Hunt’s, that is also totally fine. It doesn’t matter as much as you might think, and, as Serious Eats proved, the fact that a can says “San Marzano” on it means precisely nothing about the quality of the tomatoes within. I have a couple of favorite brands — Muir Glen, Cento, the Whole Foods house brand — but, especially if you’re going to be adding a lot of spices, don’t worry about getting real pricey ones. Definitely get the kind that’s whole plum tomatoes; you’re going to break it down anyway and I think the whole ones always taste more tomato-y than the cans of diced or pureed or crushed tomatoes.
These are ultimately all quibbles, because tomato soup is really easy to make. And cheap. And healthy. And very flexible: It’s a great base to experiment with spices to find out just how many different cuisines you can make out of a very simple dish. Here’s the basic recipe and some of those variations.
Basic Tomato Soup
Shopping list: can of whole plum tomatoes, garlic, onion, chicken stock, olive oil, tomato paste, sugar, whole milk or cream
In a heavy pot, preferably a dutch oven, pour in a tablespoon or two of olive oil and heat it up. Toss in a few chopped cloves of garlic and half an onion, also chopped. Cook over medium-low heat until onion is translucent. Open can of tomatoes and pour ’em all in. Stir and cook for about twenty minutes. Add in a spoonful of tomato paste and about half as much stock as tomatoes, stir, and cook for another ten minutes. Then add in small glug of whole milk. Do not use reduced-fat milk because it will separate like soy milk in coffee, which is gross. If you’re using cream, use very little — no more than a tablespoon. Stick your immersion blender in there and blend the shit out of the whole thing. Keep blending. Don’t stop. Who told you to stop? I know you think you’ve blended it completely. You haven’t. Keep blending it. (Okay you’re done now. Maybe.)
Taste it. If your reaction isn’t “hell yeah, that’s some smooth soup,” go back and blend it some more. Once it’s like velvet, it’s time for seasoning. This is very important. It needs salt; it needs black pepper; and it needs sugar. Be careful with these. Add them a little bit at a time, stir them in carefully, and taste. Keep tasting. Eventually you’ll take a spoonful and go, “Huh. That tastes right.” That’s when you’re done.
For a sort of Mexican soup: At the beginning, when the onions are just getting translucent, add in cumin and turmeric and fry until the onions are getting a touch burnt-looking and the pan looks maybe a little dry. Pour in a small glug, maybe a quarter cup, of beer (one on the light side, any Mexican beer will do) and scrape up all the bits from the bottom of the pan, and cook until the beer has reduced a little. Pour in your tomatoes as usual. Then take a cast iron pan and set it on the stove and turn it to medium-high. Take some dried chile peppers — guajillo would be good — and when the cast iron is hot, throw on the peppers, turning a few times until soft and pliable and smoky-smelling. Then break off and discard the stem, place the chiles in a bowl of hot water and cover. After a few minutes, take them out and put them in a food processor or blender, along with a little bit of the water they soaked in, and puree thoroughly. Add this chile mixture to the soup when you add the stock. Complete the soup as usual and then top with cilantro and, if you want, some tortilla chips.
For a sort of French soup: Add chopped carrots, celery, and fennel at the beginning, along with the onions and garlic. When translucent, add in a little sweet paprika. Stir until everything is coated, then pour in a small glug of white wine. (A glug is a unit of measurement equal to when you overturn the bottle into the pot and then very quickly turn it back upright. I think in boring standard measurements it would be maybe three tablespoons or so.) Turn the heat up to high and scrape everything off the bottom of the pan, and let the wine reduce a bit, then turn it to medium-low and add the tomatoes as usual. But when you do, also add in some sprigs of fresh thyme and rosemary (and sage and marjoram, if you have it). Before you blend the soup, take out all the herbs and discard. At the end, top with basil chiffonade (take a bunch of leaves of basil, stack them one on top of another, roll them up like a sleeping bag, and slice width-wise into tiny ribbons) and some heavy cream.
For a sort of Caribbean soup: Add one chopped habanero at the beginning, along with the garlic and onion. BE CAREFUL. Add in about a quarter teaspoon of cinnamon and a quarter teaspoon of allspice. When you add the tomatoes, also add a bunch of fresh sprigs of thyme, as well as about a half a small orange’s worth of orange peel. Go easy on the sugar with this one; it already has a lot of sweetness. Take out the orange peel and thyme when you add the stock and tomato paste. At the end, use coconut milk instead of cream. Top with chopped parsley.
There are about a billion other variations of the classic tomato soup: Try pimenton for a Spanish soup, or harissa and ras el hanout for Moroccan, or curry powder for any of the countries that use curry. But it’s pretty hard to mess up, because at its core, tomato soup is such a simple lovely thing: pureed tomatoes and broth. Also, please include grilled cheese with all tomato soups. And please use sourdough for all grilled cheeses.
Photo by Jules