Saturday, May 21, 2011

For the Love of Tomato Soup

I know. It's May; almost Memorial Day, and here I am, waxing poetic on tomato soup. In my defense, allow me to point out that we had a rash of rainy and cold weather (cold enough for me to kick on the furnace and pull out my sweater) that gave me a real craving for soup.

The problem was that by this time of year, the ingredients in my fridge have shifted, leaving me very little to make soup. But while rummaging in the deep freeze for a lost ham hock, I came across two containers of fresh tomato puree that I had lovingly and painstakingly put away back in late October. I remembered these tomatoes well, for I had let them stay on the vine and reap the last of the fall warmth and the nightly temperature dips all in the hopes of harvesting the sweetest tomatoes of all. By the time I picked them, most of the leaves had fallen away and the fruits were nicked and not anywhere near the beauty bombshells of the earlier crops. But they were tasty and made me long for tomato soup the way they serve it up in Yountville (very near Napa) at a little French bistro called, Bistro Jeanty.

That is where they make the most unbelievable tomato soup. Tucked under a golden brown tent of puff pastry is a velvety, decadently rich tomato soup that could send the most severe case of rain induced chills packing, and that is exactly what I was after. In May. In California. So, I took my stash of tomato puree to the kitchen and went to work.

My everyday cooking style is simple and I have a fairly healthy approach. I don't use loads of butter or cream, but I do have both on hand. I particularly like to drizzle the tiniest pool of good organic heavy cream over fresh berries as it is simple decadence along with a splash of high quality vanilla extract, and while I also have been known to pour a splash into pan drippings for a quick sauce, I DO NOT eat it by the spoonful, like my cat, Pank, does. So this recipe is not in my usual repertoire, although, I did make it twice in as many weeks.

Step One: Prepping the Tomatoes

Admittedly, this is the most work, for each tomato must be cored and then quartered (into eighths if they are very large) and any rot must be cut away. I never peel them, but that is a personal preference. Certainly some chefs do because the peels can impart a bitterness, but I don't let them cook down for a long enough time for that to be an issue. Once this is done, toss them into a pot with a drizzle of olive oil and allow them to cook down for about 45 minutes, on a medium low flame, until the tomatoes are rendered and the skins separated. I also toss in a handful of fresh thyme, a fairly large pinch of sea salt and few good turns of the pepper mill.

Step Two:
After the tomatoes have cooled enough to handle, process them through a food mill on the finest sieve; you want to avoid the seeds as they will impart a bitter taste. Also, worth noting, don't try to get every last bit of tomato goodness or you will get enough peel to also create a bitter product.

Step Three:
Pack into freeze containers (you will not get much; the above pan and the bowl in the background made enough puree for two soup dinners) and hide in your freezer. Hopefully, you will not forget about these until May, but if you do, you will still have the foundation of an amazing soup.

Flash Forward

Best Ever Tomato Soup
(based on the Bistro Jeanty recipe)

Tomato Puree (thawed)
1 medium sweet onion finely minced (these should be as super finely diced as possible to keep the final texture of the soup as creamy as possible)
4 T. Butter
1/4 cup good quality tomato paste
1 cup good quality heavy cream
1/4 to 1/2 cup milk
Two generous pinches of dried thyme
Two dried Bay leaves
sea salt
fresh ground pepper
1 sheet of thawed puff pastry (or homemade if you are not starving and are inclined to make your own)
1 egg beaten
fresh thyme sprigs

Put butter into a small sauce pan (I use a 4.5 quart Calphalon) over medium heat. Once butter is melted, toss in onions and sautee until soft, but not browned. Toss in dried thyme, bay leaves, salt, and pepper and tomato paste. Stir until tomato paste melts and then, pour in tomato puree. Stir to combine and allow it to heat until it begins to bubble and then pour in heavy cream. Cook stirring often until soup is thickened; if necessary, thin with a bit of milk. Taste and adjust seasonings; keep warm.

Heat the oven to the recommended temperature for the pastry; I set my oven to 400 degrees.

Roll out thawed puff pastry just to release the dough and then cut squares to fit over your soup bowls. The best way to do this is to use an empty soup bowl as a guide, set it top-side down on the sheet of puff  pastry and cut a square out that will fit the bowl and allow for overhang on the sides.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Carefully ladle the warm soup into the soup bowls, leaving about 3/4 an inch between the top of the soup and the rim of the bowl. Gently place a square of the precut pastry over the bowl and press down to seal the edges. You should pull the pastry taut over the top of the bowl (think of the skin on a drum) and make sure that the pastry is not touching the soup. Double check that your edges are tightly sealed and then gently brush the pastry with the beaten egg.

Carefully slide the baking pan into the oven; rotate the sheet once during baking to ensure even golden brown texture; bake until pastry is puffed and golden.

If it is a particularly chilly day and you are particularly hungry, feel free to flick on the oven light and curl up in front of the oven to watch the pastry puff and brown. You may hold your spoon in your hand while doing this.

**Side Note**
You WILL have extra pastry. I strongly suggest mixing up a handful of chopped walnuts, a few generous handfuls of good quality chocolate chips and a spoonful of sugar and making some impromptu semi-fancy pastries by tucking a spoonful, or two, of the filling into diamond shaped pieces of dough and folding up croissant style. These can be baked right along side the soup (brush them with the egg mixture) and enjoyed as a quick dessert.

You WILL feel guilty while consuming this meal. You won't be able to easily get past all the butter, heavy cream, puff pastry, and chocolate without a good bottle of wine and some music, preferably French bistro. I find it also helps if your spouse can speak a few French phrases (who cares what) during the meal.



  1. Hi Melanie!
    LynNerd here, your classmate. I'm so glad you gave me your blog address because this is a beautiful, well done blog. Were the photos taken with your new camera? They look great, so whatever you used worked well. I love to try new foods. Your photos are making me hungry. Yum!

    Also, you have a great voice, very friendly. You're doing all the right things. Congrats! I'll sign up to follow you, but every single new blog I've signed up to follow since I started my own blog, well, none of them are showing up in my Blogger dashboard, so it sure makes it hard to keep track of them all!

  2. Ding-dong! I just noticed your "subscribe by email," so now I'll be able to follow your new posts.

  3. I puffy heart tomato soup, Mel. The new header photo is just gorgeous! Is it your table? I want to come to dinner!!!!

  4. First of all, I love your new header - I dream of a backyard table like that. :D

    And I love, love, love tomato soup - love the puff pastry addition! Hope you have a great long weekend!

  5. Hi Melanie! I mentioned you in my new blog post today! Also, a friend just started a food blog, too, so I'm going to give her your blog site so she can connect with you.

    I still need to take the final for our online class, but I signed up for Twitter the day before yesterday! At my age, for some of us old dogs learning this stuff is pretty darn RUFF! hehe

  6. Hi Melanie! I'm Rhonda, LynNerd's foodblogger friend! Love your blog! I will enjoy reading through it today!