Recipe: Cream of Tomato Soup

Nothing is simpler or more classic than opening up a can of cream of tomato soup for lunch. So if you're going to make a homemade version, it had better be worth the extra bother. This recipe most decidedly is, although it's really not that much more work. Just chop up an onion, maybe a rib of celery, and open up a few cans of tomatoes. Splash in some milk and buzz it with a blender until smooth. That's it! But the taste difference between a bowl of this soup and the ubiquitous can is enormous.
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This recipe is based on Deborah Madison's Cream of Tomato Soup from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I've made this recipe dozens of times as is and have increased the recipe times twelve to feed fifty people with much success. It's a real crowd pleaser, especially if served with grilled cheese sandwiches.

The pinch of cloves is a great addition: you cannot taste it in the soup and yet it adds a nice deep background note to counter the brighter flavors of the tomatoes. I often use Muir Glen's Fire-Roasted canned tomatoes for this same reason. The baking soda may seem like an unusual addition but it's there to counteract some of the acid from the tomatoes. Sometimes a pinch or two of brown sugar will help as well.

I have never used fresh tomatoes for this soup but I imagine it's worth a try. Just be sure to use deeply flavored tomatoes, such as dry-farmed Early Girls or good, meaty Roma or San Marzanos. I would not recommend using fresh tomatoes from the supermarket.

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Cream of Tomato Soup

serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small onion, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
Pinch of ground cloves
2 tablespoons flour
One 15-ounce can diced tomatoes in puree
Pinch of baking soda
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock, or water
1 cup milk, plus up to 1/2 cup more as needed
Tomato paste, as needed
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Melt the butter in a soup pot and add the chopped onions and celery. Cook for about five minutes, or until the vegetables are soft and wilted. Add the basil and cloves and cook another minute or two until fragrant, then add the flour. Continue cooking for another two minutes, stirring, and then add the tomatoes, followed by the baking soda and the stock.

Lower the heat and simmer for ten minutes or so. Remove the pot from the heat and carefully puree the soup in batches in a blender, or using a stick blender in the pot, off the heat. Return the soup to the heat and add the milk, stirring to blend. Add more milk or stock if the soup seems too thick. Add a little tomato paste if it needs more tomato flavor. Add some freshly ground black pepper and salt, to taste. Serve hot with optional garnishes, listed below.

Absolutely at its best when serves with grilled cheese sandwiches.

Notes:
• Be sure to use good quality canned tomatoes and try for tomatoes packed in puree, which will add to the tomato flavor. (This may be a good recipe to use passata.) I use Muir Glen's Fire Roasted Tomatoes, which add a nice depth of flavor and are not overly smoky.

• I don't always have a rib of celery on hand, so I have been known to skip it. When I do, I will often add a healthy pinch of celery seed to the onions when cooking or celery salt as a garnish.

• Although it is not traditional, I like to garnish this soup with a little plain yogurt or sour cream or creme fraiche. As mentioned, celery salt is a good garnish, as well as chooped celery leaves.

• It's easy to play with the texture of this soup. You can puree it in a blender, which makes a nice, slightly rough texture. If you would like it even smoother, you can also strain it through a sieve. The sieve (or a food mill) can also be used if you don't have a blender, or feel like having an unplugged kind of day.

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Related: Soup Recipe: Italian Wedding Soup

(Images: Dana Velden)

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