We twenty-first-century Americans are all, whether we like it or not, products of a certain amount of marketing. If we grew up with television, or even with magazines, certain notions of what we ought to eat and when are embedded in our brains, and half of them were invented out of whole cloth by Madison Avenue.
So, for example: it got cold this week, I left the windows open all night, and by lunchtime Monday the house was still cooler inside than most people would heat it in the winter — and felt even cooler than that from the shock of the sudden temperature change. And I felt strongly that I simply must have a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of cream of tomato soup.
Why? I never even liked tomato soup as a kid. I didn’t like much of anything with cooked tomato in it, and I detested canned condensed cream of tomato soup — still do. But I have this gnawing feeling that it is what I’m supposed to eat for lunch when I’m cold. There was some kid in a TV commercial eating Campbell’s soup, probably, and my mother always had it around, and tomato is the iconic flavor. (Thank you, Andy Warhol.)
Soup is good food, but if I give in to the marketing, I feel like a tool. (Thank you, Jello Biafra.) I could root out these notions one by one and devote half my life to the project. I could reject them by making tomato soup from scratch and make the best damn tomato soup ever, but then I’d also have devoted half my life to the project. Either way the buggers would have beaten me just as surely as if I’d bought a case of cans from the grocery store.
So what I do, instead, when I get these cravings, is to figure out easy ways to make what I want. Half an hour or less, most of it unattended, or done half-assedly while I’m answering emails at the kitchen table. Because if it’s easy, nobody needs Big Food to do it for us. And, more important, because I can get lunch on the table and get on with my life.
Easy also means that I’m not going to write you what has come to be considered a Proper Recipe, with precisely measured ingredients, because I don’t measure ingredients precisely when I make soup. Precise measurement seems frankly contrary to the whole idea of soup. Or of comfort food. Let alone of Fighting The Power or Sticking It To The Man.
And, finally, as I said last time, I’m not going to get overly picky about what’s “from scratch.” I don’t make my own vermouth from local muscadine grapes and herbs I grow in my garden, I’m sorry. I buy Noilly Prat. I don’t can my own tomatoes, either (don’t have a big enough garden). Punk was always kind of a pose anyway.
What passes for a recipe when you are fighting the power
Chop a smallish onion, or half a larger one. Cook it in a little butter until it’s soft but not brown. (Not that there’s anything wrong with brown. It’s your soup.) If you like, add a little crushed garlic for the last minute, but I find that garlic + tomato makes me think spaghetti, so I leave it out.
Pour in a few tablespoons of dry vermouth and let it boil a half a minute or so. That was Julia Child’s suggestion: keep dry vermouth around for occasions when you need a little bit of white wine for cooking. It adds a layer of flavor, too, from the herbal infusion; it’s like getting seasoned salt with your wine.
Dump in a standard-sized (28 oz) can of whole or diced tomatoes, whichever you have around, or a quart of home-canned tomatoes if you have them. Or fresh tomatoes, if they’re in season, though if you don’t seed them first you may find yourself wanting to strain the soup when it’s done. The better the tomatoes, the better the soup, obviously.
Add a little salt (half a teaspoon to start if you’re measuring), and a few sprigs of fresh thyme, if you have them, or else a pinch of dried. (Fresh is easy enough to grow in a pot on your window sill.) Simmer for 15 minutes or so.
At this point you will probably want to purée the soup. If you used fresh thyme, fish the stems out now. They will have lost most of their leaves. You could have stripped the leaves and thrown only them in, but I can’t stand stripping thyme. If, however, you mind that fussy sort of thing less than I do, or if you fear you will forget to fish the stems out before puréeing the soup, by all means, strip them.
Now to the puréeing. I have an immersion blender — not something I would buy now if I didn’t have one, but it’s nice once you have it — and I sort of lazily half-purée the soup right in the pot and leave it a little chunky. A blender or food processor will work. It doesn’t have to be perfectly smooth. If you used diced tomatoes, you don’t even necessarily have to purée the soup; you can leave it chunky.
Return the soup to the pot and add some cream — a quarter cup, maybe, and then taste it and see if it needs more. If you don’t have any cream, sour cream or yogurt would be good, but don’t let it boil. Or evaporated milk, I suppose.
If it needs more salt, add it, and grind in some pepper and maybe a few dashes of Tabasco.
Warm it back up and serve it.