November 27, 2011

Refining a Classic: Tomato Soup

In Washington, D.C. right now you can visit a fascinating exhibit on the history of government influence on American diets over the past 200+ years. The exhibit is called What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? and is hosted by the National Archives. Ingeniously, the exhibit also features a temporary menu of historic American recipes at America Eats Tavern in downtown Washington. The menu is eclectic and extravagant; it features delicacies like raw oysters and "catsups" (among the interesting flavors are blueberry and anchovy), hoppin' john, cold peanut soup, and Kentucky burgoo. Just reading the titles of these dishes makes one think back to reading about cooking beans and cornbread over spitfire stoves in Little House on the Prairie. Although the American West is featured prominently in dishes like bison steak and short ribs, the South actually gets most of the menu's attention. Jambalaya, shrimp and grits, turtle soup, and étouffée are prepared according to 19th century Southern cookbooks. One of the best appetizer features to me was fresh, hot hushpuppies. Rough with cornmeal and not at all cakey like many restaurant hushpuppies, these delightful little things were served with soft, sweet butter. My favorite title in the menu was called "Abalone with Butter-Pepper Air, Bourbon Worcestershire." Butter-pepper air? Seriously? And speaking of seriously, what about the Peanut Butter and Jelly with fois gras? As intrigued as I was, I ordered a "Vermicelli Prepared Like Pudding" for dinner, which was essentially an old-fashioned macaroni and cheese with cremini mushrooms. For dessert, I tried the Vermont Maple Sugar on Snow, which really reminded me of the maple syrup and snow desserts that the Ingalls family made in Little House in the Big Woods. It was delicious - thick maple syrup poured over a hill of shaved ice, underneath which was a soft mound of cream. Flecked over the snow were tiny wisps of orange peel and maple sugar candy. Truly unique and inspiring!

This evening, to wrap up the first day of Advent (my favorite season of year), an afternoon session of engagement photos, and Christmas tree shopping at Lowe's, I decided to go a classic comfort route for dinner: grilled cheese and tomato soup. For the soup, I stuck with a traditional, Italian-influenced recipe that uses chunks of soggy bread instead of cream to give the soup a mock-thickness. The grilled cheese was equally simple: hearty slices of oatmeal bread, Dijon mustard, smoked mozzarella and a sheep's milk cheese with hot red pepper balanced out the tanginess of the tomato soup and gave our meal a truly all-around comforting feeling. No way in this life can I come close to the sophistication and imagination of the historical recipes that were used at the America Eats Tavern. But the experience alone was enough to whet my curiosity about old classics and not to be afraid of outdated recipes. Anything can be modernized, prettily presented, re-flavored, and re-inspired. The re-inspiration in this classic grilled cheese and tomato soup evening consisted of fancy sheep cheese and fried sage; beyond that, I take comfort in knowing that such amazing creativity can be used to polish old recipes. Be inspired!

Classic Tomato Soup

Adapted from Cook's Illustrated

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil (I used an Italian herbs oil from 
this specialty shop in Charlottesville, VA.)

1 medium onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch hot red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
2 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes
1 tablespoon brown sugar
3 large slices good sandwich bread, crusts removed and cut into 1-inch squares (I used Whole Foods' oatmeal bread)
1/4 to 1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
Salt and fresh pepper
Fried sage (recipe to follow)

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, and bay leaf. Cook, stirring frequently, until onion is soft and translucent. Stir in tomatoes. Mash with potato masher until tomatoes are broken down and soft. Stir in sugar and bread and bring soup to boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook until bread is completely saturated and starts to break down. Remove bay leaf.
Add 1 more tablespoon oil and blend with immersion blender or transfer to standard blender in batches until smooth, or to desired consistency. (I leave the soup just a bit chunky, for rustic time's sake.) Stir in chicken broth until soup reaches desired thickness. Return soup to boil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve in single bowl and sprinkle each bowl with fried sage.

Fried Sage

1 tablespoon butter
1 small bundle fresh sage

In a small skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Wash sage thoroughly and pat dry. When butter is melted, add pieces of sage and fry until crispy. Serve on top of tomato soup, fancy grilled cheese, or even crumbled in buttermilk biscuits.

Pin It

No comments:

Post a Comment