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.