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Let’s Cook Some Tomato Soup

A bowl of tomato soup with croutons and herbs
Photo by Albert Burneko/Illustration by Chris Thompson

This blog had a different opening at first. It was about how the pandemic has stolen both ordinary grocery-shopping patterns and ordinary Halloween fun this year, and a reasonable, if sad, adaptation to both of those losses is to cook a big pot of homemade tomato soup and then encourage yourself and others to pretend that it is, like, a bowl of spooky vampire bloooooooood. It was a joke! We do jokes with the food here. It was a joke. The joke was So it has come to this.

But then all at once, earlier this week, like being hit with a sledgehammer, I had the idle thought that the next one of these, after this one, will be on the far side of the election. In whatever world that will be. It’s just the most awful thought. I can feel my chest tightening when I imagine Tuesday, and Wednesday, and the Saturday after next. When I imagine The Future at all; when I confront my inability to imagine it being good or even stably as bad as the present. And now it’s all I can think about! Picture the version of me on the Saturday before the 2016 election. That innocent doofus. That pitiful rube. How utterly alien the events of the following week, year, four years have rendered him to the sad blasted husk writing this blog today. Imagine him being like Guh-hyuk-hyuk, let’s make some Hallereen soup y’all! That absolute horse’s ass. What a horror I might seem to myself two weeks from today. That’s way scarier than Halloween.

Oh ha ha right, we were talking about tomato soup. Or we hadn’t quite gotten there yet. Tomato soup! I think you should cook a large pot of tomato soup. Pretend it’s blood if you damn want to! It’s easy; it’s cheap; it’s warm; it tastes good. You can do it. The best reason to do it today, if you are like me, is to be distracted from your deep dread at the thought that the world might still exist in some form 96 hours from now, and you in it.

Here are some things that you will need.

You will need an extremely large amount of canned whole tomatoes. At the store, there is the lil’ eight-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes. This will not do it. Then there is the big 28-ounce can, the one that is the size of a modest cantaloupe. That is also too small. I am talking about the big insane 90-ounce can of tomatoes. The one that looks like this:

I took this photo. (Albert Burneko/Defector)

Look at the size of that friggin’ can! That can is the size of a basketball. That is what the hell I am talking about, here. When I made a pot of tomato soup earlier this week, I used all the contents of that can, and then I also used all the contents of not one but two of the 28-ounce cans of whole peeled tomatoes. The soup was good. This is what I recommend.

Please do not mewl at me about the superiority of fresh tomatoes. Look outside right now. It is freaking Halloween. Tomato Time is long gone. Use canned tomatoes.

You will also need some basic aromatics. Two large yellow onions, plus, oh, I don’t know, some number of cloves of garlic. I like a lot of garlic. If you will scroll back up to that photo of the can of tomatoes, you will see a bulb of garlic. I used all of that bulb’s very large outermost cloves. It came to a lot of garlic. Maybe you don’t like garlic as much as all that. You can use less garlic than that if you want.

While you are at it, and while we are still in the “some basic aromatics” section of this blog: If you want to run down a nice big leek, that will be a nice addition to your tomato soup. I did not put any leeks in the last pot of tomato soup I made, and it was fine. In any event, dice the onions, and mince the garlic. If you have a leek, clean it thoroughly, halve it lengthwise, hack off the root end, and then slice the white and light-green part crosswise, thinly. (Save the dark green part for stock-making, later.)

Oh hey, speaking of stock, you will also need, oh, let’s say a quart of chicken stock. If you are a vegetarian or vegan or you just don’t have easy access to chicken stock, it will be fine to use water. I guess that means it’s not really a thing you “need.” It’s too late to go back and reword that sentence! We’re only moving forward in this blog!

You will need herbs, specifically thyme and parsley and a couple of bay leaves (you can probably get away with a little bit of rosemary this time of year, but don’t go overboard; you are not making Christmas Tree soup, here). Tie the thyme and bay leaves into a bundle with some kitchen twine; chop the parsley. Some packed anchovy fillets will go nicely in your tomato soup, as they do in tomato sauce; if you are vegan or not-vegan but a weenie, you can leave them out. You will need some cooking fat, olive oil or butter or whatever. I recommend that you also have some red chili flakes handy, so that your soup can do its part to make you feel alive. You will not need tomato paste—you can do fine without it—but if you happen to have some, that will be nice.

And this is not quite a “need” thing, but I very enthusiastically recommend that you have some cream nearby. You will notice in the photo way back up at the top that the bowl of tomato soup has some cream swirled into it. This is just very good. I’m reliably told that it is also “very bad for you,” but you were not going to live forever anyway.

Another thing that bowl of soup has in it is delicious homemade croutons! You can decide for yourself if you want to go the crouton route, or the crusty bread route, or both, or neither, or if you want to serve your tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich or whatever. If you want to go the crouton route, you will need the following items: A loaf of day-old crusty bread, a few hearty glugs of olive oil, some salt and black pepper and garlic powder, and maybe some grated hard cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino. Cut the bread into one-inch cubes; chuck the cubes into a big bowl; toss them with, in order, the olive oil, then the seasonings, then the cheese; spread them out onto a foil-lined cookie sheet; sock them into a 375-degree oven and check on them every few minutes until they’re a nice toasty brown color here and there and when you pluck one out and eat it it’s nice and crunchy. There. Croutons! Set them aside; an airtight freezer bag will keep them fresh. Back to the soup.

Haul out a big-ass pot or Dutch oven, set it over low-ish heat on your stove, and get a big hearty pinch of those chili flakes going in a couple tablespoons of whatever oil you chose. When the oil has turned orange but the flakes aren’t yet burned, throw your diced onion in there, salt it generously, and toss it around with your cooking implement of choice. It’s okay to bump the heat up to medium or medium-high now.

You have two choices here. Or possibly three. You have at least four choices here, if the list includes blowing all of this off and doing something else with your time. But I would like to focus on the, ah, three, the three choices. You can cook your onions until they are merely translucent and soft, and then move on. That is one option, Option A, and it will hustle you along to the next step in 10 minutes or so. The thing your soup will lack in this case is the pleasant sweetness that comes from cooking your onions longer than that. You can accept that (it’ll be fine, really), or choose to remedy it later on by adding some sugar to your soup. Adding some sugar later on is Option B. Option C, which you just knew I was going to recommend, is to cook the onions longer than that, until they are a lovely rich brown color, if not just all the way caramelized. This will take quite a bit longer, especially because you naively followed my advice and used two large onions, which is a lot of friggin’ onions. It will take, in all likelihood, at least 40 minutes. That’s at least 40 minutes of staying nearby, moving the onions around every couple of minutes so that they don’t burn on the bottom of the pot, tending to them, getting angry at me for how long it’s taking, cursing the day I was born, cursing onions and the act of cooking and indeed food and heat and life. I recommend it!

In any case, at some point your onion will be however the hell cooked you decided to cook it. Now you can (throw in the leek if you’re using any, and give it a few minutes to sweat and soften, then) add your anchovies to the pot and move things around until the fish dissolves, which will take just a few minutes. (If you are using tomato paste, now is when to add it.) Now chuck the garlic in there and toss things around; as soon as you can smell the garlic, splash a cup or two of the chicken stock (or water) in there to deglaze the bottom of the pan and prevent the garlic from overcooking.

Now, for the violence! With your accursed hand, reach into the giant can of tomatoes, and extract a tomato. Hold the tomato down in the pot, near the surface of the stuff in there, in your loosely closed fist. Say something like “I’ll see you in hell, you sonofabitch” to the tomato. And then crush the damn tomato in your fist, as though it is the still-beating heart of your hated foe, and drop its ragged crushed remains into the bottom of the pot!!! Hell yeah!!! Now also do this with every other tomato in however many cans of tomatoes you are using. Whatever liquid remains in the cans also goes into the pot.

You can do this more sanely, if you like. You can just dump the can of tomatoes in there and then crush them with a wooden spoon. My sincere belief is that crushing them by hand gets the best results, and also is fun to do. But no, fine, really, go ahead, deprive yourself of the fun, if that is how you wish to live your life. It is nothing to me. (Crush the damn tomatoes in your fist!)

Eventually your pot will have all the tomatoes and tomato liquid in it. Add the rest of the stock (or water), and probably some salt. Some freshly cracked black pepper wouldn’t kill you! Stir things around with your trusty implement so that all the ingredients are distributed amongst each other. Bring the soup up to a steady burble, then lower the heat so that it settles into a nice simmer and cover it partway with a lid. Now look at the clock. What you do next depends on how soon you were planning on eating some tomato soup, and whether you were planning on blending or pureeing this stuff at some point.

If you were planning on blending or pureeing this stuff at some point, then, uh, you will have to blend or puree it at some point. You’ll want to do that before you put the thyme and bay leaf in it, so that you don’t have to extract them before blending or pureeing your soup. If you’re planning on eating some tomato soup relatively soon, like within the next hour, then I recommend blending or pureeing it now—either via a detour to the blender and then back into the pot, or right there in the pot with an immersion blender. Then you’ll want to add your bundle of thyme and bay leaves to the pot of soup and let it simmer for, oh, 45 minutes. If you have more time than that, and are planning on blending or pureeing this stuff, then I recommend just letting the soup simmer in the pot until you’re about an hour away from Go Time, then blending or pureeing it, then adding the bundle of thyme and bay leaves and letting the soup simmer with that in there for the final 45 minutes or so. I have no idea which parts of this paragraph should have been boldfaced.

It’s also fine not to plan on blending or pureeing the soup! Nowhere does it say that tomato soup must have a smooth, uniform consistency! It’s fine to have vaguely chunky tomato soup. The lesson of the previous paragraph really concerns when to put the bundle of thyme and bay leaves in there: Early enough that they can work their magic, but not so early that their aromas dissipate and your couch cushions smell (and probably taste) like thyme and bay leaf but your soup does not. Whenever you put your bundle of thyme and bay leaves in there, try to give them 40 minutes or so to do their thing, and try not to give them too much longer than that, if only because there’s no reason to.

It occurs to me that I’ve made this more complicated than it needed to be. Let’s move on, dammit. I think the soup is done. It is time to serve and consume the soup.

Ladle some soup into bowls. If, as a being of grace and wisdom, you took my cream admonishments to heart, here is where you can swirl just a little bit of cream into each bowl with a spoon. It looks nice and will add some welcome richness here and there. If you did the croutons thing, scatter a handful of those suckers across the top of each bowl. Then scatter some of the chopped parsley across that. Doesn’t that look nice? Yes it does. But we were not making a painting. We were making food.

A childhood of Campbell’s tomato soup out of a can, God bless it, cannot prepare anybody for just how, well, tomato-y homemade tomato soup tastes. I have never liked the word “luscious.” It strikes me as vaguely creepy. So instead of calling your tomato soup that, I will say that it is bright and vibrant and vivifying; that it tastes red, that at the first sip you can feel your mouth, your palate and salivary glands, flushing in excitement. It can’t bowl over or obscure the future. It’s just a bowl of soup. If it’s good and you like it, then it’s a few pleasing minutes for you to live in your senses instead of your mind. It lasts as long as it lasts. I recommend small sips. It’s okay to close your eyes.