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Soups

As soon as the tomato season gets into full swing in Provence around the beginning of July, we jump up early on Sunday mornings and head to the nearby village market. First things first: Our Sunday ritual of coffee and croissants on the terrace has to wait until our return. There are many vegetable stalls at the market but for those in the know there is one that hands down wins the tomato gold medal, and you need to get there early to make sure you’re in the running. We often buy 3 or 4 kilos (6-8 pounds) to take care of our tomato addiction – we certainly wouldn’t want to run out during the week.

Aside from gazpacho and simple salads, there are a zillion other ways we use them: In sauces and vegetable tians, in tarts and omelettes, stuffed and sundried, to name just a few. Except for maybe the onion is there any vegetable more useful than the tomato?

Here are a few of our favorite quick-and-easy recipes which I hope will add to your repertoire for those occasions when your palate (or your family) demands a change.

MY COLD TOMATO SOUP

I actually made up this recipe about fifty years ago. It was so well received that I’ve continued to make it every summer and then hand out the recipe to friends who ask for it once they’re tasted it. It does require tomatoes at the peak of perfection so don’t even think about making it with inferior ones.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

4-6 perfectly ripe tomatoes (depending on size, you want to end up with about 4 cups)

1 1/4″ thick slice baked ham (not proscuitto) chopped very finely, about 1/3 of a cup

2 tablespoons finely chopped cucumber

1 tablespoon each chopped basil, parsely and chives (save some for the garnish)

1 teaspoon grated lemon rind

1/3 cup whipping cream or creme fraiche

Salt and pepper

Plunge the tomatoes into boiling water for a minute, drain, rinse in cold water and peel. Chop them up roughly and puree them in the food processor, leaving a bit of texture. Add the rest of the ingredients and pulse a few times to combine, then add salt and pepper to taste. Chill well and serve. This is a wonderfully rich soup.  Don’t leave out the ham – surprisingly, most people think it tastes like crab. 

PERFECT PANZANELLA

Panzanella is not the kitchen sink, as in everything but….Wikipedia, in its definition says “panzanella is generally made of stale bread soaked in water and squeezed dry, tomatoesolive oilvinegarsalt, and pepperOnions and basil are often added.” It goes on to say “other ingredients—lettuceolivesmozarellawhite winecapersanchoviescelerycarrotsred winered onioncucumber,tunaparsleyboiled eggsmintbell pepperslemon juice, and garlic— are sometimes used, but Florentine traditionalists disapprove of them.”

Well, add me to the list of disapprovers.

First of all, it should be made of top flight ingredients – ripe, summer-sweet tomatoes, stale crusty bread (Tuscan unsalted if you happen to live in Tuscany), mild red onion, your very best olive oil and vinegar, salt and pepper and a sprinkling of  fresh basil. That’s it. Well, some chopped cucumber and a little garlic won’t hurt but any of the other ingredients listed above are strictly taboo, at least in our household.  We also don’t like to soak the bread in water as it makes it mushy. Better to add it directly to the bowl with the other ingredients, toss it around and it will absorb the tomato juices, oil, and vinegar while retaining some of its chewiness.

 Serves 4

 Ingredients:

 4-6 ripe tomatoes (about 1-1/2 lbs) cut into bite-size chunks

1/2 a small red onion cut into very thin slices

3 tablespoons best olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar (or you can use half balsamic, half red wine)

2 tablespoons torn-up basil leaves

2 cups crusty bread, such as sourdough, 1-2 days old, crusts left on, cut into 1″ cubes

Salt and pepper to suit your taste

Put all the ingredients in a large bowl and mix thoroughly until the tomatoes release some of their juices and the bread is no longer dry but still crisp around the edges.   Let sit for 10 minutes and toss again before serving.

Additional suggestions:  If your bread isn’t completely dry, put the cubes in a low oven (150 degrees) for about 10 minutes.  

You can use a Vidalia or other sweet onion or, if your red onion seems sharp, put the slices in a small bowl and just cover it with a mixture of boiling water, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon vinegar and let soak for 10 minutes or so. Drain well. This is a good way to tone down raw onions for any recipe.

UNCOOKED TOMATO SAUCES FOR PASTA

These are two summer pasta dishes where all you have to cook is the pasta.  We love the contrast between the hot pasta and the cold sauce and even if the pasta cools a bit, they are still a summer delight – easy and quick to make with ingredients you probably have on hand. Both recipes are for four but you can obviously increase or decrease quantities easily, depending on whether you’re serving it as a first or main course. Although we prefer lighter pastas such as angel hair or spaghettini for both, you can use whatever pasta you have on hand.

FRESH TOMATOES, BASIL AND CHEVRE 

Serves 4

4-6 ripe tomatoes, cut into large dice (about 1-1/2 lbs.)

2 -3 tablespoons torn basil leaves

1 clove garlic

2 tablespoons of your best olive oil

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Salt and freshly ground pepper

4 oz. soft goat cheese (such as Montrachet) 

12 oz. pasta of your choice

Put the tomatoes and basil in a bowl to which you can add the cooked pasta.  Make a vinaigrette: Pound the garlic clove with a teaspoon of salt in a pestle and mortar (or bowl if you don’t have one). Add the vinegar, olive oil and pepper and stir to combine.  Pour over the tomatoes and mix thoroughly. Soften the goat cheese by whipping it with a fork so that it will melt into the sauce. If it still seems stiff, add a teaspoon of cream or milk.

Cook the pasta in salted water according to the package directions, drain well and stir it into the tomatoes.  Serve immediately with a dollop or two of chevre crowning each serving.  

If you don’t happen to have chevre on hand, this dish is still wonderfully simple and satisfying without it.

FRESH PUTTANESCA

You’ve probably seen recipes for spaghetti alla puttanesca or “whore’s spaghetti.” There is always a lengthy discussion on the origins of the dish and why and when the whores of Naples made it. It actually dates from the mid-20th century, but who cares? Enough to say that they got it right – it’s a lusty, warming dish for a cold winter night. But the ingredients are so invitingly earthy that I thought why not put them together without cooking them so that the dish could be enjoyed when tomatoes are at their peak? Needless to say, I was not the first person to have this insight.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

4-6 ripe tomatoes, cut into smallish dice (about 1-1/2 pounds)

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

4-6 anchovy filets, drained and finely chopped

8-10 black olives, such as Kalamata, pitted and coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon drained capers

1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

1/2 teaspoon dried hot pepper flakes (or more, if you like things really spicy)

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons olive oil

12 oz. pasta of your choice

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl large enough to accommodate them and the pasta.  Cook the pasta in salted water according to the package directions.  Drain well and add to the bowl, tossing  to coat with the sauce.  Check for salt – you won’t need pepper. Serve immediately.

It’s June 21st(ish) and summer has officially arrived. And just as well, because after a somewhat cold and windy spring, it has in the past few days become unpleasantly hot.  The cicadas are all too aware of the change of season: they took up their summer posts today and have begun their high-pitched chant which loses its charm quite quickly, particularly as they position themselves very close to the pool and the house. Still, it’s reassuring to know that they’ve survived yet another year.

Summer makes us think first of all of tomatoes, which because of the cold spring, are just beginning to be worth eating.

When they’re at their peak we eat tomatoes virtually every day in one form or another – salads, stuffed, in sauces, and of course, as gazpacho.  I think we could probably go a whole summer on a diet of gazpacho. In Spain now you can find it made with watermelon and strawberries and beets and cherries and all sorts of other exotic ingredients but none of them really beats the original. Our gazpacho tends to be less liquid than most you’ll come across in Spain because we like to load it up with garnishes and don’t like to dilute the tomatoes with too much water. Suit yourself. If you like it thinner, add more water. I’m not keen on tomato juice as I think it subverts the pure taste of good tomatoes. I do think it’s important to use sherry vinegar and a Spanish olive oil, if you can find it.

I’m also giving our recipe for salmorejo, which is from Córdoba. It’s a close cousin of gazpacho, which originated in Seville. It’s made without onion or cucumber.  Some days we think we like it better.

Gazpacho

Serves 4

Ingredients:

3″ piece day-old baguette, crust removed

2 – 2-1/2 lbs. the ripest, juciest tomatoes you can find

1/3 English cucumber, peeled or 1/2 regular cucumber, peeled and seeded

1/2 light green, thin skinned pepper or 1/3 regular green pepper

2 tablespoons red onion or any mild onion such as Vidalia

1 large clove garlic

Salt and pepper

Pinch piment d’Espelette (optional)

2+ tablespoons olive oil (preferably Spanish hojiblanca)

1 tablespoon aged sherry vinegar

For the garnish:

2 tablespoons finely chopped cucumber

2 tablespoons finely chopped green pepper

A few chopped basil leaves (optional)

Soak the bread in water for 5-10 minutes then lightly squeeze out the water.  Core the tomatoes and cut them into large chunks.  Cut the cucumber, pepper and onion into smallish pieces.  Working in batches, process a mixture of each of the vegetables until smooth, saving a few pieces of tomato. Process the garlic in the food processor and then add the bread, oil, vinegar, the saved pieces of tomato, salt, pepper and optional piment d’Espelette and blend until you have a creamy dressing, adding up to a half cup of water.  Add this to the tomato mixture and check for taste.  You may want more salt and/or vinegar. 

Now if you want a really smooth gazpacho, run the whole thing through a blender – not essential, but definitely an improvement.  Chill the gazpacho for up to 2 hours. If I haven’t planned ahead, I put the gazpacho in the freezer for up to twenty minutes, stirring it once half-way. I like to fold in the cucumber and pepper garnishes (instead of serving them in a bowl) and top each serving with a splash of olive oil and a sprinking of chopped basil if I have it on hand. For variety, or for a festive occasion, I sometimes add a dollop of guacamole or a few cooked shrimp as a garnish!

Salmorejo

Use the ingredients listed for gazpacho, increasing the bread to a 4″ piece and eliminating the cucumber and onion.

Make it in exactly the same way but I do think it’s important to put the mixture through a blender at the end.  The traditional garnish is finely chopped hard-boiled egg white and chopped Serrano ham.  I’m not keen on the egg but do like to use Serrano ham or proscuitto.  Try both and see what you think. 

This is not something that was on our blog schedule, but we made it last night and it was so good I couldn’t bear not to share it. Spring asparagus soup. I think the asparagus here in the U.S. is the best in the world, surpassing those (much touted) that arrive in June in England and the white ones that Germans go crazy about a little earlier in the year. The really beautiful, fat, mouthwatering ones arrive here in California in February to give a kickstart to spring!  Which is why we bought about 4 pounds a few days ago when they were on sale and ended up making soup. You can only eat so much asparagus, no matter how delicious. I used to save the inedible ends that you cut off when you prepare them for cooking. I’d boil them to make soup and always end up with a slimy-green, stringy mess that I would throw out and proclaim “You can’t make asparagus soup.” Then I discovered the error of my ways. Asparagus soup is so delicious that it’s worth splurging on the real thing to make it.

Asparagus Soup

Serves 2 -4

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon butter

1 leek, white and very light green parts only, cleaned and sliced (or double the amount of onion)

2 tablespoons sweet onion, finely chopped

1 medium potato, peeled and cut into 4 pieces

3 cups water (stock unnecessary)

1 lb. fat asparagus

1-2 tablespoons cream (crème frâiche or whipping)

Saute the leek and onion in the butter, until soft.  Add the water and the potato, bring to the boil and let simmer.  

Meantime, prepare the asparagus.  Cut off (and discard!) the bottoms of the asparagus that you wouldn’t want to eat.

Take a few minutes to peel them (with a vegetable peeler, you can slice away the outside layer easily if you start just below the tip.) Cut them in 1″ pieces, saving the tips.  After the potato-leek mixture has simmered about 10 minutes add the asparagus pieces and cook for a further 10 minutes.  Steam the tips separately (I put them in one of those simple rosette steamers and place it over the soup). Remove them when they are barely cooked. 

Puree the soup in a food processor or with an immersion blender until very smooth. Reheat if necessary, add the saved tips, the cream, and for an extra treat, a grating of parmesan.

The weather has been so un-winterlike in San Francisco that it’s been hard to think about hearty stews and robust soups.  This past weekend, however, cold weather and rain finally arrived, so it’s time to break out some pulses – beans, barley, lentils and split peas. Here are three nourishing soup recipes that will warm you up, wherever you may be.

Scotch Broth

This is, not surprisingly, an old Scotch recipe.  Its appearance is somewhat murky, and barley can be, well, slimey. However, it’s one of those hearty soups that speaks of the pleasures of winter fare at its best.

I like to make it with just lamb, onions, carrots, a leek or two and barley, but you can add turnips, parsnips, even cabbage and potatoes if you like to make it a more of a stick-to-your-ribs stew.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

6-8 cups water

2 shoulder lamb chops (or a lamb shank)

a few sprigs fresh thyme 

3″ piece celery

2 bay leaves

1/2 cup barley

1  onion, chopped

1 leek, white and pale green parts only, sliced in rounds

4-5 carrots

2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

Put the lamb, thyme, celery and bay leaves in a suitably large pot and cover with water, to which you’ve added a good teaspoon of salt. Bring to the boil and skim off the scum that rises to the surface, continuing to skim if necessary.  Simmer gently for 60 minutes then strain, discarding the herbs and setting the meat aside.  Return the liquid to the pot, adding the barley, onion, leek, and carrots and continue to cook at a bare simmer.  Once the lamb is cool enough to handle, remove the bones, chop it and put it back in the pot. Continue to cook until the barley and vegetables are tender (a total of 30-40 minutes since they were first added.)  The soup should be thick but not solid. Add more water along the way if necessary.  Add the chopped parsley, salt if necessary, a good grinding of pepper, and serve piping hot.

 

Black Bean Soup

After I’d made this soup and Sam had photographed it, it struck me that everyone knows how to make black bean soup, right? Or, if not, you can’t go far wrong following the recipe on the bag of beans. So if I don’t have anything particularly illuminating to add (and I don’t) what’s my excuse for writing about it? Well, we do have a nice photo, black bean soup is so cheap and cheerful, it’s perfect on a cold, blustery night, and maybe it’s slipped off your radar and you’re happy to be reminded of how simple and easy it is to make.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients:

1 pound dried black beans

8 cups water

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

2 rashers bacon, chopped (optional)

1 large onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

Juice of 1/2 lime, salt

Sour cream and chopped cilantro for garnish

Soak the beans overnight in cold water to cover by 2 inches, or bring the beans to the boil in a large enough pot, boil for 2 minutes, cover and leave for at least 2 hours.  Drain the beans.  Saute the bacon in a little oil until almost crisp, add the onions and garlic and continue to cook for another few minutes (or if you’re not using the bacon, just saute the onions and garlic in the oil).  Add the drained beans, bay leaves, cumin and cayenne,  and again cover with water by about 2 inches.  Bring to the boil, skim if necessary, turn down the heat  and simmer until the beans are just cooked.  Cooking time will depend on how fresh (or old) the beans are, anywhere from one to two hours.  You’ll need to keep checking after the first hour.  When cooked, add salt, the lime juice and if you think it needs to be jazzed up a little, a bit more cumin and cayenne.

Put about half the beans and some of the liquid in a food processor or blender and blend until smooth.  Return to the pot and mix well with the rest of the beans.  Serve hot, garnished with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of cilantro.

Soupe Au Pistou

This is Provençale minestrone, pistou being the local word for pesto.  It’s more often an end-of-summer soup made when vegetables are at their peak, basil is abundant, and fresh shell beans such as cranberry (cocos in French) make their brief appearance. I make it year ’round because it is probably my very favorite hot soup, bar none.  I am quite rigid about what vegetables to use – leeks, carrots, potatoes, green beans, zucchini and butternut in winter –  and then I add canned canellini (often sold as “white kidney beans”) and pasta, cooked separately.  In summer I add a lovely ripe tomato (sometimes to the soup, sometimes to the pesto) and fresh shell beans instead of the canned.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients:

2 medium potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, peeled, cut in half

5 carrots, 2 fat and mature cut in half, 3 skinny and young, cut in 1/4″ rounds

2 leeks, white and pale green parts only, left whole

1/3 lb. green beans, sliced into 1″ pieces

1 cup butternut squash, chopped into 1/2″ dice

4 small zucchini, sliced into 1/4″ rounds

1-14 oz. can canellini beans (or 2 if you’re not using pasta)

8 cups water

Salt, pepper

1/2 cup elbow or farfalle pasta 

For the pistou:

2 cups basil, stems removed

2 cloves garlic

1/2 cup olive oil

1 ripe tomato (in summer, peeled)

Salt

Parmesan cheese to grate at the table

The way I make this and other minestrone-type vegetable soups is somewhat unconventional.  I learned it in the restaurant Lou Pastrouil in Nice, when I was cooking around Europe in the sixties.  Lou Pastrouil was a simple place in the old town decorated with fishing nets and copper pots. I spent a week there as an (unpaid) apprentice, getting acquainted with the pleasures of Provençale food.  In addition to the rustic pork pâté, stuffed sardines, and wonderful mussels for the first course, there were two soups on the menu – soupe de poissons and soupe au pistou. The elderly woman who was the cook showed me how she vigorously mashed some of the veggies against the side of the pot to give the soup body instead of letting the liquid remain, in her words, like dishwater. I have done this ever since, though nowadays with the help of a food processor. It really does make a richer soup.

Sadly Lou Pastrouil no longer exists, a busy Bar-Tabac has now taken its place, the aroma of its exhilirating food long gone.

Put the potatoes, the two large carrots, and the leeks in the water in a suitably large pot. Salt the water and bring it to the boil.  Cook until the veggies in the pot show some resistance to a knife (about 5 minutes after the boil).  You’re now going to add the other veggies at intervals so that the’re all perfectly cooked at the same time:  First the sliced carrots, then the beans, then the butternut, then the zucchini, then the canned beans, with a few minutes between each addition.  This may seem like a lot of trouble, but it really makes a difference to have each vegetable cooked right and not too mushy nor too bitey.  Five minutes after the last addition, turn off the heat, and fish out the potatoes, carrots and leeks.  Process them (in two batches if necessary) in a food processor or blender with enough liquid from the pot to prevent the potatoes from becoming sludgey.  When you have a smooth purée, add it back to the pot and reheat the soup.

Cook the pasta separately until al dente and add it to the soup after it’s reheated.

While the soup is cooking, make the pesto. In a mortar, pound the garlic with a pinch of salt  and gradually add the basil, pounding it to a paste. If you’re using a tomato, add it now and continue to pound.  Otherwise add the olive oil progressively until you have an unctuous thick sauce, not quite an emulsion.  I leave out the usual parmesan as I prefer to add it directly to the soup at the table.

Of course, you can make the pesto in a food processor or blender. But, if you don’t own a pestle and mortar, I strongly urge you to invest in one (preferably marble or porcelain with a wooden pestle..like this one, for example). Using it  to make pesto and mayonnaise and salad dressings is a most rewarding experience, not to mention yielding a finer end product.

Finally, to serve: Ladle the hot soup into large bowls. Bring the pistou to the table in its mortar, swirl a tablespoon (or two) into each bowl, add grated parmesan, a grind of pepper and prepare to be astonished by its goodness.

Like the two previous soups, this one benefits from being allowed to sit for a day. So if you can resist eating it immediately, cook the pasta and make the pesto right before you plan to eat it.