Friday, January 20, 2012

A winter walk and a bowl of cream of tomato soup

Winter without snow: A hard season to love and find beauty in. You have to look. You have to want to find it. So you set out for a walk with your eyes open, looking, defining the aesthetic pleasures of the barren season: the unexpected flashes of intense color, welcome among the dominant themes of browns and gray; the delicate, watered silk of a cold sky; the intricate texture and structure of bare trees and underbrush; a leaf suspended in ice.  

And after you return from your cold walk with frozen cheeks and runny nose and a deep, quiet satisfaction, it's time to indulge in another pleasure of the season: a nice warm soup, rich and creamy, a mellowed dream of summer flavors. Maybe served up with a perfect grilled cheese--all crispy golden edges and soft, gooey center?

The trick to making a smooth, satisfying bowl of cream of tomato soup is that you don't use cream. If you did, you would end up with a nasty curdled mess because of all the acid in the tomatoes. Instead, you make a bechamel sauce--a basic sauce of milk, butter, and flour--and add it to your tomato base. Bechamel sauce is used as a base for many other sauces, including Mornay sauce (a tasty cheese sauce), so it's a good basic to know.

Part 1: The Tomato Base

What you'll need:
  • 1 28-oz can of crushed tomatoes (obviously home-canned would be preferable, but I am not always that efficient at the end of summer, so organic will do)
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped finely
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon dried herbs of choice (basil, thyme, oregano are all good; rosemary and sage are probably too strong for this soup)
Here's what to do with the ingredients:
  1. Add olive oil to your favorite soup pot and heat it over medium heat. Add the onions, let them sweat for about 10 minutes. Stir from time to time. They should be soft, shiny, sort of translucent around the edges, but not brown. 
  2. Add tomatoes (if you are using whole tomatoes, go ahead and buzz them up in a blender or food processor first), garlic, and herbs. Let this mix simmer gently for about 15 minutes. 

Part 2: The Bechamel Sauce

Bechamel sauce is basically a white sauce made with milk, butter, and flour. The ratio for these three ingredients is always the same (1 cup milk to 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons flour), so you can make as much or as little as you like. For this soup, I usually like to add 2 cups of bechamel sauce.

What you'll need:

  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups of milk (traditionally you are supposed to scald the milk, but I usually skip this step)
  • 1 small white onion, studded with cloves (this is traditional, but I sometimes just add a few peeled and bruised garlic cloves instead)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4-5 black peppercorns
And here's what to do:
  1. Melt the butter in a pot.
  2. Stir the flour into the melted butter, let it get a little golden (about five minutes over medium-low heat).
  3. Whisk in the milk a little at a time (using the whisk minimizes lumps).
  4. Add the onion (or garlic cloves), bay leaf, and peppercorns.
  5. Let the sauce thicken and simmer for 10-15 minutes (if it starts to feel too thick, you can always add a little more milk).
Finally, to complete the soup:

Strain the bechamel sauce into the soup base and mix it together. Using a stick blender (if you have one; these are enormously handy tools, so I would recommend getting one), buzz the soup until it is smooth. (If you don't have a stick blender, you can blend it in a blender or a food processor, just bring it back to the pot and back up to temperature before you serve it.) Add salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy!

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