Tomato soup is one of those things in the world which does not allow for fence-sitting. Much like beets or sushi or even deep-fried Twinkies, either you love it or you hate it. Actually, unlike deep-fried Twinkies, it cannot be a question of not understanding why this food exists-- it's more of something intrinsic to childhood, because that was the time of our lives when most came eye to eye with a bowl of the red stuff.
Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup was my first introduction to this food. Likely, it was the base of the Spam Stew my mom used to make for us when we lived in Honolulu. She did later import this culinary (delight? marvel? absurdity?) back to the Mainland. From what I can remember, Spam Stew required a couple cans of condensed tomato soup, water, a can of green beans, maybe some corn?, and a can of SPAM, cubed up and thrown in, all those ingredients cooked together.
Then came the introduction, via hot lunch at school, of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Hot cheese and tomato soup are like Bogart and Bacall or Bert and Ernie: meant to be together, forever. This was the norm, until middle school when I came face to face with the scariest cheese/tomato combination alive: Cheese Zombies.
May the culinary deities bless the lunch lady who invented this gift from junk food bliss. The Cheese Zombie was a quantum leap in the decadence department: imagine a giant cafeteria tray holding what was nothing more than a Velveeta pie; crust on bottom, loads of cheese in the middle, crust on top. If you were lucky, you would get a piece cut from the middle of the tray, literally oozing cheese in long strands as it headed to that largest rectangle of your cafeteria tray. Dunking the 'Zombie' into the institutional tomato soup, complete with little mysterious red lumps-- this--this-- was heaven.
It wouldn't be until I was 28, though, before my favorite tomato soup memory came to be. A bunch of us had gone to the Northwest Film Center to see a retrospective of the work of Ray Harryhausen, a special effects pioneer. This would be followed with a Q&A with Harryhausen himself.Way back in the day, Harryhausen created his own method of stop-motion special effects called Dynamation. (Did you click the link? Recognize any of his legendary creations, including Mighty Joe Young?) Well, long story short, one of our party asked Harryhausen and his wife one last question during the receiving line: were they hungry?
And that is how I found myself sitting at the old Heathman Bakery on Park Avenue, back in the late 90s, with Mr. and Mrs. Harryhausen. They were proper, polite, seemingly unfazed at the prospect of dining with some nutty bohemian types who had endless questions about his work. Aretha Franklin played in the background and Mr Harryhausen made a comment to the effect that she sounded like she was being tortured. I believe he had a rather subtle sense of humor, but what do I know?
However, when his tomato bisque came to the table, he declared the soup "as red as the blood of Medusa". He should know-- he animated her for the 80's movie "Clash of the Titans".
And that is what has stuck with me, ever since. Whenever I sit down to a bowl of tomato soup, I hear Ray Harryhausen's comment in my head~ as red as the blood of Medusa. How can that not be the best tomato soup memory in my head?
Years have passed and I have moved on from the Campbell's Condensed offerings, even the Progresso varieties won't suit. I have what we might politely call 'food issues' and many things we find in prepared tomato soups-- milk, garlic, onions-- are all off limits to me. Undeterred, I've set out to make my own tasty red soup and that said, here's the recipe.
1 large or2 smaller stalks of celery, washed and trimmed
1 large or 2 smaller carrots, washed, peeled, trimmed
1 red bell pepper, washed, seeds and fibrous ribs (white) insides removed
1 28oz can of good quality crushed tomatoes (I use Muir Glen's Crushed Tomatoes with Basil)
Italian herbs (or basil, thyme, marjoram)
Good veggie broth. (I use the Imagine brand; comes in a carton. Or when I have trimmings, it can be made from scratch.)
Once your raw veggies are prepped, you have a choice; dice by hand into a 1/2 dice the pepper and slice, thinly, the celery and carrot. OR run it through a food processor with a 2mm slicing disc. This will help the veg cook faster. Heat up a large saute pan and add some olive oil, about 1-2 TB worth. Remember, you have a lot of veg to cook down. Saute for a while, then reduce heat and cover-- sweat the vegetables until tender, then add in the can of tomatoes and stir occasionally until heated. While this is happening, I also crush some dried Italian herbs in a mortar and pestle-- about 1 tsp. worth, but you can add more to taste. Stir these in too, and then remove from heat and let the whole thing cool for 20 minutes or so.
At this point, you can transfer what's in the pot into a blender in a couple of batches; puree and add some broth in, at least a quarter cup per blender batch. This will make a soup with a thick, sauce-like consistency, so you can add more broth if you like it a little thinner. Liquefy for a finer texture.
Once you have processed all of the soup, you will likely end up with at least 1 qt + 1 cup or more of soup, depending on how much broth was added. I like to serve this soup with some fresh lemon juice right on it for a little flavor enhancement, and I don't add salt or pepper until it's on the table. The flavor of the red pepper will shine through, the carrot adds a little sweet (which is a substitute for the savory sweet of onions) and the celery is a nice, crisp complement. Because there is no garlic, the lemon juice adds some zing to the bowl and brings out the great, sunny flavors of the tomato and peppers. You can also tweak this recipe toward sweet with more carrots, or less sweet with more celery or adding italian parsley to the homemade stock.
I like this with a couple slices of sourdough, hot from the oven and dripping with melted cheese. Today, it was combination of the Norseland Snofrisk (goat) and the more quotidian Trader Joe's "Polder Blanc", a goat's gouda.
Can't have the cheese zombies any more, and wouldn't you know-- I have a kid that hates tomatoes. But I'm hopeful and giving it time. Maybe they'll eventually grow on him. But he does like monsters, so maybe, just maybe, I can one day entice him with a bowl of 'the blood of Medusa'. Stranger things have happened, no?