Getting in, and getting out

Dear readers, you are a very kind and patient bunch. Posts have been few and far between over these last few months. If you don’t mind my geeking out on you for a moment, I’d like to tell you what I’ve been up to. (Have faith, friends. This Once Upon a Geekish Time ends, happily, in my kitchen.) There comes a day in the life of every graduate student when she must pull out her crystal ball, wave her hands over top, and peer through the mist to see if that blurry, disappearing-reappearing specter in the distance might just be a DISSERTATION TOPIC. In academic circles, this soothsaying is known by another name: the writing of the prospectus.

The prospectus is, in laymen’s terms, a project proposal that must be approved by my department before I proceed with the actual writing of the dissertation. In it, I discuss previous scholarship on or related to my subject, and describe what I will argue, and how. I present my sources, and explain why my project will be new (!) and valuable (?!) to the field. This process of preliminary research and working through my ideas in writing is exhilarating. But it also gives me the shakes. Writing a prospectus, I’ve found, is a little like trying to frost a cake before you’ve baked it. You have to smooth out the lumps, pipe on a few flowers, and make it look as pretty as can be, even though you’re not yet quite sure if it’s white or chocolate cake under there. Whoever said “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” clearly never wrote a dissertation prospectus. From where I sit, it’s more like “Count them! Name them! Dress those unhatched chickens to the nines in designer chicklet apparel and trot them out onto the runway!” I’m doing my very best to envision what this project will become, but it won’t be until I’m in the thick of it that I’ll know for sure. What I do know is that I am writing a literary biography of a Polish-Yiddish writer who lived at the turn of the twentieth century. I’m focusing on his formative years to try and get a handle on his artistic genesis, and to figure out why he wrote what he wrote in the way that he wrote it. When I think of it as a project on the life of a writer’s mind, I can’t wait to get started. When I think of it as a project that has my geeky brain scattering in a gazillion directions at once, I start to feel a little woozy.

At times like these, there are two schools of thought regarding the best use of a kitchen. The first instructs the student to treat the kitchen as a welcome distraction, a gleaming ray of light at the end of a hard day’s work. According to this school, good things come to those who bake. Go in shoulders hunched, brow furrowed, mind wrapped in prospectus-generated fog, emerge a couple of hours later a new woman, a little sticky around the fingers, but stress-free, with a cake in hand. The more intricate the recipe, the better. Anything to pry the brain from the books and the bottom from the chair for as long as possible. There is just one potential pitfall: Though time in the kitchen is typically my most trusted tension tamer, I have learned that, startlingly, it is possible simply to cook while stressing. That, my friends, is a recipe for disaster. I end up doing a lot more crying into my cutting board and mild cursing than actual cooking, and if the food flops, I am inconsolable. I begin to wonder why I ever bothered to pick up a mixing bowl in the first place when I-ALWAYS-RUIN-EVERYTHING-I’M-NEVER-SETTING-FOOT-IN-THE-KITCHEN-AGAIN! It is not a pretty sight, and poor Eli is left to pick up the pieces. So, for the sake of my marriage and my temporarily delicate psyche, I’ve been subscribing to an opposing school of thought lately, one that can be summed up in five little words: Get in, and get out. The trick, of course, is to create something delicious in between. And that, patient readers, is where this tomato soup comes in.

This recipe came about thanks to an old friend of mine who moved to town a few months back. He is allergic to a shockingly vast number of foods including – in addition to eggs, nuts, seeds, and legumes – most vegetables. Tomatoes and onions somehow made it onto his tiny scrap of a safe list, so when I was faced with the task of creating a soup that both my friend and our vegetarian dinner guests could tolerate, I knew what I had to do. I’m not sure if you can tell from that picture up there, but thanks to its forcibly short list of ingredients, it is perhaps the purest, most down-to-earth tomato soup ever made. There are no carrots or peppers lingering in the wings, no garlic to turn up the heat. It is as tomato-y as tomato can be. And yet, despite its simplicity, this soup is beguilingly rich, surprisingly full-bodied. I think that the extra dose of tomato paste has something to do with it, but I’m sure that the cup of whole milk – or cream, if you’re feeling decadent – doesn’t hurt. Also, while many recipes call for a few cups of meaty stock or vegetable broth, this soup relies on the puréed tomatoes and their juices for its liquid. It’s tomato to the core. Deeply, profoundly tomato.

Spooned from a bowl or sipped from a mug, this soup is a veritable tonic, a remedy for all of your shivers and shakes, prospectus-induced, or otherwise. I love the way it holds its warmth and drapes itself over the tongue. Especially now that we’ve had our first Boston snow, I like to think of this soup as summer’s tomatoes, all dressed up in nubby fleece sweaters, wool socks, and ear muffs. It buttons you up; it tucks you in. At dinnertime, it falls down the throat like a red velvet curtain, signaling the close of a dark-too-soon day. I realize that I have set up competing textile metaphors here, but frankly, you can call it a cashmere scarf for all I care. Just go with whichever fabric you find the most inviting, finish reading this paragraph, and make this soup. And when you’re through, you might consider indulging in the little-known, but undeniably brilliant third school of kitchen thought. The one that encourages you to leave the dishes in the sink, lie down on the floor by the oven, find a pair of willing hands, and enjoy a post-soup massage.

Simplest Tomato Soup

I have just a few quick notes before I send you on your way: To make sure that your tomatoes will really sing, use the best canned tomatoes that you can find. I use San Marzano tomatoes. I have made this recipe with both red and yellow onions. I prefer the red, but feel free to use what you have on hand. An immersion blender (my “magic wand,” as I like to call it) is your best bet for speedy and mess-free puréeing, but a regular blender will also do the trick. You’ll just have to work in batches, and be very careful to keep from burning yourself. I would suggest letting the soup cool a little before you get started. The soup is pretty darn smooth, but you will find the occasional seed. I like it this way; it’s fun to pop them between my teeth. But if you prefer an absolutely seed-free soup, you can pour it through a fine-mesh sieve before you add the milk, and then return it to the pot to finish. Finally, I like to drizzle a bit of basil-infused olive oil into each bowl before serving. I know it sounds fancy-pants, but it’s really just a tiny, simple move to offset the tomato. I use a brand called Olave, available at Whole Foods and some supermarkets. If oil-drizzling not your style, you’re of course welcome to skip it.

1 large red onion
2 T. butter*
2 T. red wine vinegar, divided
1 T. flour
2 T. tomato paste
2 28 oz. cans of whole San Marzano tomatoes
1 c. water (or veggie broth or chicken stock, if you prefer)
1 bay leaf
1 c. whole milk or cream*
Salt and pepper to taste
Basil oil (optional)

Coarsely chop the onion. In a large heavy pot, melt the butter over medium-high heat. When it foams, add the onion, and sauté until it softens, appears translucent, and browns a little around the edges. Add 1 T. of the vinegar to deglaze the pot, scrape up the brown bits with a wooden spoon or spatula, and turn down the heat to medium-low.Add the flour and the tomato paste, and stir to incorporate. Add the remaining tablespoon of vinegar to deglaze once again, and scrape up any flour or tomato paste that may be sticking to the pot.Add the two cans of tomatoes. I find it's easiest to use my (very clean) hands to squeeze and break each tomato into the pot. Alternatively, you can break them up in the pot with a wooden spoon once they have softened. Pour the juices that are left in the cans into the pot. Season with salt and pepper, add the bay leaf, cover, and let simmer for about 30 minutes.Remove the bay leaf. Add the one cup of water or stock, and return to a simmer. Then, turn off the heat, and use an immersion blender to purée the soup. Taste, and add salt and pepper, if necessary.Just before serving, warm the soup and stir in the milk or cream. If you’re using the oil, drizzle a bit into each bowl.
The soup will keep for several days, at least, in the fridge. I actually like it best once it has had a night or two to ripen.

Yield: Serves 8. (The recipe can be divided to serve four.)

* I have made this soup vegan by replacing the butter with olive oil, and the milk with soy milk. The result was excellent.


LyB said...

That looks so comforting, it would be perfect with all that snow we're getting right now. Good luck with your dissertation! :)

megan said...

I would love to read this but I am myself heating up some (microwave) tomato soup and working on my First Term Papers. Equally terrifying, I think. I will get caught up soon, I promise!

Maggie said...

Lovely post. Good luck on the prospectus!
My husband is wandering these days in the dark tunnel of pre-dissertation months—do you start writing? do you keep doing research?—and I think this soup would do him good.

Jess said...

LyB - Thank you. Our first snow has all but melted away here in Boston, but it's only a matter of time before we receive another round. This is indeed a most excellent soup for cold, snowy days.

Megan - My dear, most faithful reader, only you would apologize for not reading a post the very moment it goes up. That you're even checking with such diligence already blows my mind. Good luck with your work. Just remember last year this time, when you were so looking forward to having term papers on your plate again! xo.

Maggie - Thanks! I feel your husband's pain. Pondering that writing vs. more research conundrum definitely calls for soup.

Char said...

and your first dilemma is probably why i never pursued an academic life beyond the now. i freeze at the thought of the research to put into something as this - i would love it but somehow i never like the work that goes into reporting it.

your description of the soup makes me long to like tomato soup - i'm one of those weird children that grew up never liking tomato soup with their grilled cheese. i wonder how that happened as my mother would feed us great quanities of campbell's soup. i meandered and grew quite fond of chicken noodle, until the unfortunate flu incident of the 1980's. but that's another story.

Char said...

ps - i think you're rather rad for writing the book. i admire that.

and the soup looks soooo delish.

Garrett said...

Be Strong

jenny said...

i'm not doing a graduate dissertation, but i can sympathize -- i have been working on my undergraduate honors thesis almost a year and a half now (it should have taken 9 months, tops).

i remember one time last year, after doing considerably more algebra than all of highschool in one afternoon, when i tried to make sweet potato fries for my mom and me. i was at home for spring break with a draft deadline pending upon my return, and i put the potatoes in the microwave for 7 minutes (yep) to soften them before cutting them to bake.

needless to say, i got a pile of mushy sweet potatoes. i stood at the kitchen counter bawling my eyes out. my mom sat me down at the table, threw out the potatoes, and we had tomato soup for dinner.

ironic, no? =)

good luck with your giant undertaking. you'll be amazed at how validated you'll feel when it's finished. enjoy the research and the work, and don't microwave sweet potatoes when you want fries.

Nina said...

jess, yummy! this looks amazing and i just may make it this weekend. thanks. having survived writing a dissertation i fully empathize and can relate to your words. so much of it seems like jumping through hoops and your words/ideas take on a life of their own in the hands of your committee members. my best advice to others was to get the best computer chair you can buy as you will be sitting at that spot for so long.

i'm sure you are going to do wonders with your research. hang in there and fully procrastinate when you need to by cooking and baking :).

Jess said...

Char - You are so kind to write even though tomato soup is not your thing. Is it possible that with your mother offering bowl upon bowl, you managed to overdose before adulthood? And chicken noodle soup's out too? (Thanks for sparing us the details of that story!) As for my research, I'm lucky to be enjoying it so far. Hopefully I'll feel the same about the writing when the time comes.

Garrett - Ha! So nice to hear from a fellow graduate student in the trenches. Thanks for the support.

jenny - Thanks for sharing your Tomato Soup to the Rescue story. Do you think we've stumbled upon a genre? Adventures in soup-er heroes? Congratulations on nearing the finish line on your thesis. It feels a long way off for me, but fortunately, I like the journey.

Nina - Hello there! So, I guess you're evidence that there is life on the other side! Thanks for your advice, on all fronts. I'm lucky to have an amazing advisor who is totally on my team. That makes all the difference. And of course, when the going gets rough, into the kitchen I'll go!

Katie said...

What a lovely post! I'm slogging through term papers in my own phd program (one more year before tackling my prospectus) and am finding that I definitely fall into the first camp of kitchen users. The number of baked goods I bring to seminar has definitely increased as the semester becomes more difficult. Don't tell anyone, but sometimes I don't finish the reading because I'm busy baking. Yikes. I have a sinking feeling that my evaluations are going to say something like "She makes very delicious apple tarts and lemon bars, but her interpretation of Plato is just bogus."

Best of luck with your research and happy cooking!

momMe said...

Oh, your "heightened awareness" --- your writing soothes, comforts, and induces big proud mommy smiles. Makes me want to warm the kitchen with a big pot of soup simmering on the stove while breathing in your beautiful words. The next pot of soup I brew, tomato or otherwise, will be dedicated and eaten in your honor.

Lauren K. said...

Soup sounds wonderful for this bone-chillingly cold day! The way you describe the fine line between cooking to relieve stress and getting even more stressed from cooking is spot on--it either takes your mind off things or makes you even more frustrated. Good luck with your dissertation!

janna said...

I'm very picky about my tomato soup, but I think I'm going to try this one!

Good luck with the prospectus!

Jess said...

Katie - So funny! Personally, I'll always take bogus textual analysis over bogus apple tarts and lemon bars. The former is at least good for a laugh. The latter just makes me queasy. Don't worry. Your secret is safe with me.

Mom - I love it when you comment here. Thanks for saying such nice things about my writing. (It's not like you're biased or anything.)

Lauren - Thanks for your note. It's nice knowing I'm not the lone disciple of these opposing schools of kitchen thought.

janna - I don't blame you. There are some pretty unappealing ones out there. I hope that this one fits the bill. Thanks for the good luck wishes!

Megan Carroll said...

Weirdly enough my husband and I were in Boston for the first snow. He was interviewing at Mass General for a post doc position, he too is writing his thesis, though in a slightly different vain. We are expecting our first snow in Vancouver tonight, so soup is definitely on the menu.

Good luck.

El said...

Looks pretty tasty. Good luck with your prospectus!

Elishag said...

Where can I get my hands on "designer chicklet apparel"? Love that whole sentence.

This soup sounds so yum.

Picturing you cursing, even mildly, into your cutting board really made me giggle.

Jess said...

Megan - It was lovely, wasn't it? Though as Boston snows go, it was pretty dinky. If you end up in Boston, you'll see what I mean! Good luck to your husband on his thesis and post doc interviews, and happy soup-eating to you both.

El - Thanks!

Elishag - Thanks, my friend! And I see you've outed me as the timid cusser (curser? swearer? I can't even get the verbiage right!) that I am. Didn't think I had it in me, did you?

Rosiecat said...

This soup made me so happy tonight. I love that it's made from pantry goodies! I made it without really planning to make it--no grocery shopping required!--and it made such a lovely end-of-week supper. The flavor is remarkable. Thank you for the recipe, Jess. I'm tucking this one away in my tomato soup files :-)

Megan Carroll said...

We have pretty much decided Boston it is... just neighbourhood shopping now.... got my snow shovel in hand and will be trying the soup this weekend.

Nithya said...

I can totally sympathize. I'm neck deep in an experimental Physics project, my Masters' Thesis. And I live in a hostel with no hope of getting warm, oniony soup till I get to go home next. Still, your writing and photos fill me up.

Jess said...

Hello, sweet Rosiecat! Your note made me so happy. It really is remarkable how such a simple soup can pack so much flavor. I'm so glad that you enjoyed it.

Megan - Congratulations! I hope that the transition is smooth and the landing soft. I'm sure you have your own Boston "insiders," but if you have any questions about neighborhoods or, ahem, good eats, feel free to shoot me an e-mail.

Nithya - What a very kind thing to say. Thank you. Best of luck with your thesis. If only I could beam you a bowl of this soup through the internet, I would.

megan said...

Designer chicklet apparel - I need me some of that! Do you think I can make a big batch of this over break and freeze it in servings? And then add the milk when I heat it up?


Megan Carroll said...

just saw the weather report for boston... does it really snow that much?

Jess said...

Megan - Yes. Yes, it does.

sara said...

hard to cook for people with allergies of all sorts, I commend you. Sounds delicious.

megan said...

almost two months later and I am going to cook the soup tonight... I need a little brightness...

Karin Lorenc said...

I just made this soup today after finding your recipe on craft gawker. Delicious soup. Simple but yum. I didn't have basil oil and found it did need a little something so I just mixed in a little bit of pesto I had in the fridge already. Fabulous. Goes well with oyster crackers. Thanks!

Jess said...

Sara, Megan, forgive me! For some reason I'm just now seeing your comments. Thank you for your notes, and Megan, I hope that you found the soup sufficiently bright.

Karin, I'm so happy that you enjoyed this recipe. Great thinking to add that pesto in place of the basil oil. Brilliant, actually! I bet this soup would be wonderful alongside a bowl of pasta with fresh pesto. I'll have to try that this summer. Thanks for the inspiration!

RecipeGirl said...

Hi There, I have a fun story to share with you. We rent a beach house in Massachusetts every summer. We have wonderful neighbors and often share dinners with them. Last night, our neighbors came over for an Italian Feast and they were carrying a jar of tomato soup. It was labeled "Simplest Tomato Soup- Sweet Amandine." Of course I recognized your blog name and wanted to share that with you. The soup was fabulous (we sipped it cold). Thanks, and Happy Summer :)

Jess said...

You just brought a huge smile to my face, Lori! Thank you so much for sharing. You know, I've never thought to eat this soup cold, but now I can't wait to try it that way. Please thank your neighbors for me for the inspiration. Happy summer to you, too!