The food that I love to cook—and eat—always tends toward simplicity (even the name of my private chef service advertises this). But at no time do I crave simple, clean flavors more than I do just after the holidays. Not only am I tired after the bustle of December...my palate is tired. So on the day after Christmas this year, we dined on a simple Cream of Tomato Soup. The bright flavor and creamy texture were precisely what I needed.
The recipe I'm posting is the exact soup I made, but it is really just a variation on a theme: Cook onions in a generous amount of olive oil until tender and beginning to turn golden. Add garlic and cook until fragrant. Add some good quality canned tomatoes along with some stock or water (stock gives a more rounded flavor...water a light, clean tomato taste) and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes to allow the flavors to blend. Purée and add a bit of cream (or milk...or half & half) and serve. It's that simple. If you keep onions, garlic and canned tomatoes in your pantry, there really is no excuse for opening up a can of tomato soup.
You can vary this formula to your heart's content. Start with butter instead of olive oil. Or, do as I have done and start by rendering some bacon or pancetta. (The crisped bacon can be reserved and sprinkled over the finished soup.) Adding a few herbs—oregano, marjoram, basil...fresh or dried—as well as some hot pepper flakes adds interest and zip. Add these with the garlic.
The addition of white wine will provide depth to the natural sweetness and acidity of the tomatoes. Add (and reduce) before adding the tomatoes and water/stock. As with many puréed vegetable soups that contain no other starch (like flour or potatoes), adding a small amount of rice will give your finished soup a little body and a nice velvety texture—but you will have a fine soup without it. You could of course add other vegetables to cook with the onion—carrot, celery, fennel, etc.—but I think this is moving beyond "simple". This is not necessarily a bad thing...just not what I was after this particular time.
In general, puréed soups cry out for a garnish of some kind..something to enhance the flavor and provide textural contrast. As mentioned earlier, if you have made your soup with bacon, the crisp bits of bacon are a perfect finish. Other than that, a few crumbles of blue cheese would be good....or some chopped fresh herbs...or crisp croutons.... But in the end, I don't really want a chef-y garnish. When it really comes down to it, the perfect accompaniment to a bowl of tomato soup is the tried and true: a warm quesadilla or that childhood favorite, a grilled cheese sandwich.
Cream of Tomato Soup with Bacon
4 strips bacon (about 3 oz.), thinly sliced cross-wise
2 medium onions (about 1 lb.), quartered and thinly sliced
2 fat cloves garlic, minced
1/8 to 1/4 t. red pepper flakes
1 t. dried oregano
2 T. rice (Arborio, basmati, etc.)
1/2 c. white wine
2 28-oz. cans peeled Italian plum tomatoes, crushed
3 c. water (or chicken stock)
1 c. heavy cream (or half & half, or milk)
Salt & Pepper
|Ingredients for half a recipe|
In a medium-sized stockpot, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until crisp. Remove to paper towels and reserve.
Add the onion along with a pinch of salt and sweat until very soft and beginning to caramelize—about 15 to 20 minutes. Add the garlic, oregano, pepper flakes, and rice. Cook one minute. Add the wine and reduce by two-thirds. Add the tomatoes and water. Season with salt (the salt required will vary greatly, depending on the brand of canned tomatoes you use). Simmer the soup until the rice is tender—20 to 30 minutes. Purée the soup in a food processor or with an immersion blender, adding more water or stock if the soup is too thick. Return the soup to the pot (straining, if you like). Stir in the cream. Heat through and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper.
Ladle the soup into bowls and serve topped with the reserved bacon. Makes 2 1/2 quarts soup.
Note: If you would like to make this soup without bacon, start with 3 T. of olive oil, adding more if the onions seem dry.