Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Power of Soup

Eating at home alone while the husband man dines at one of Google's 18 gourmet cafes gives me a lot of freedom. I cook what I want, when I want, without worrying about whether or not it suits his preferences as well as my own. His common complaints about most of my cooking often come out "it needs more meat," while my common complaint about his cooking resounds with "it needs more vegetables." He likes starchy white grains, like white rice and white pasta, while my likings tend more toward whole grains. Even when he did eat at home often, we still often ate separate meals.

But, within this freedom, I have found constraints. For instance, I have a whole stack of recipes I want to try, but the stack never gets smaller because they always seem to feed 6-8. What if I don't love it? I'll be stuck eating it all week or let it go to waste! Even if I do love it, 6-8 servings of even my favorites is asking a lot of me. I found a solution to the problem.

I had plans for my good friends, Alan & Mel, to come over for dinner so Mel could borrow a book for an upcoming roadtrip. A couple of us had nursed one or the other of the summer yucks that have made the rounds in the city. It's been mostly foggy and cool (hello, it is summer in San Francisco, after all). For once, since the visit didn't center solely around food, we didn't already have in mind what I should make. (Usually our dinners come out of conversations like, "Oh my gosh, we HAVE to have a carne asada taco party!" or some such idea). So I gave them three options of what I could cook. All options fit my requirements of something soothing, comforting, that I wouldn't make for just myself, that came from my stack of Cook's Country/America's Test Kitchen/Cook's Illustrated recipes I wanted to try, and that I could cook in my dutch oven. Okay, that last one was a little selfish on my part. I adore the Le Creuset dutch oven I got as a wedding gift and will use any excuse to bust it out. It's quite large, as a dutch oven ought to be, so I don't get to use it as often as I'd like when cooking for myself.

The options: Quick & Hearty Chicken Noodle Soup, Creamless Creamy Tomato Soup, and Almost Hands-Free Risotto.

The winner: Creamless Creamy Tomato Soup from our good friends at America's Test Kitchen.

My mom is going to croak if she reads this. Growing up, we loved to make a simple lunch and read at the table while we ate - a habit I still have today. She and my brother often dined on Campbell's tomato soup during these meals, but, contrary as ever, I alone would insist upon Cream of Mushroom. Aside: over the years, Campbell's has gradually reduced the sodium content of their condensed soups, you know, so they wouldn't slowly kill us. The theory was that, while customers won't buy cans labelled "Reduced Sodium," we wouldn't notice if the change happened gradually without our knowledge. I don't eat as much canned soup as I did as a kid, but a few months ago I practiced my old ritual of Cream of Mushroom, saltines, and a book. As I hadn't been eating the soup regularly, the change certainly did not happen gradually for me. It tasted way blander than I remember. Blech. Now I have to learn to make my own Cream of Mushroom soup. Project! But anywho, back to the topic at hand... My mom would never believe I CHOSE to make creamy tomato soup! The thing is, I actually like a well-made bowl of tomato soup. I just hate when it's either bitter, or the cream used to cut the bitterness also cuts the tomato flavor. Unfortunately, one of the two usually seems to be the norm.

ATK's recipe sounded like it addressed both issues. Of course. That's why I love their entire line of shows, books, and magazines. Instead of cutting the bitterness of the tomatoes with cream, they used a classic alternative: bread. Another Aside: I won't reproduce the recipe in its entirety. I love ATK and Cook's Illustrated too much to plagiarize. Instead I will encourage you all to visit their website and register to use the free content. Trust me. I use their site more than any cookbook at this point. Want a new way to cook salmon? Type "salmon" in the search field and discover their shallow poaching technique. Need a fresh new way to prepare green beans? Want recipes that let you bust out that new kitchen tool you've been itching to use? ... Well, you get the picture. I even pay for the premium content, I love their stuff so much. But payment is unnecessary. Give them your email address and you too will have access to such wonderful recipes as Creamless Creamy Tomato Soup

The recipe is very easy and only took about 45 minutes, start to finish. Start with sautéing onions, garlic, and bay leaf in olive oil. Then add canned whole tomatoes (check out their taste tests to find the best brands of tomatoes, as well as bread and olive oil) and mash with a potato masher.

Add chunked sandwich bread, crusts removed, and cook briefly until the bread is thoroughly saturated and breaking down.

Puree in the blender with a little more olive oil for a few minutes in two or three batches and strain through a mesh strainer (optional). Add a touch of brown sugar, some chicken broth, and salt to taste. Return to a boil. I garnished with fresh ground black pepper, olive oil, and chives.

And it just wouldn't have been proper not to serve this creamy tomato soup with grilled cheese and a side salad.

It's just not the classic tomato soup experience without a little dipping, now is it?

Do you have a beloved Cook's Country/America's Test Kitchen/Cook's Illustrated recipe you think I should try next? They really are my favorite. I constantly get trapped reading their cookbooks like novels, reveling in their tales of trial and error. They make the mistakes so you don't have to! And, no, they don't pay me. They don't even know who I am. I'm just big ol' fan girl who geeks out for good food.