Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Cream of Tomato Basil Soup and Nostalgia

When I walked out of the bathroom stall she was standing there at the sink, drying her hands veerry sloooowwly on a paper towel. She looked like a tall version of Velma from Scooby Doo - wide set eyes and freckles behind a pair of dark librarian glasses and an auburn bob haircut.

"Aren't you one of the girls on my floor? What's your name again? I'm Wendy." She extended a very dry hand for shaking.

"Yeah, I'm Amanda. I'm down the hall."

"Did you know this was going to be a religious thing? I missed the part about this being at the Baptist Student Union. I thought it was just free pizza," she said, trying to suss out my level of involvement in our present situation.

"No, definitely not. That girl just said there was a place on campus giving out free pizza for move-in day. She did NOT say it was the Baptist Student Union, and I'm pretty sure we aren't even ON campus any more," I griped with relief at having found a compatriot also hiding out in the ladies' room.

"Wanna try to sneak out of here? I'm ready to GO."

"I think I saw a side exit door around the corner. We'll have to try to figure out how to get back to the dorm, but it's better than staying here."

It was our first day at college. We'd just moved in to student housing with the rest of the freshman and had been assigned rooms down the hall from one another. Everyone on our floor was new except for the one uber-friendly Senior girl who had introduced us all to each other and invited us to tag along with her and her friend to get pizza for dinner. Growing up in the Bible Belt as we both did, we should've been more suspicious. In hindsight, we'd both tell you that there's no such thing in this world as free pizza.

But after that harrowing adventure, we were the best of friends. We ate most the rest of our meals together in the neutral safety of official campus food services facilities. We hung out in each other's rooms and took classes together. We went to our first college party together. We rented our first college apartment together.

We soon established a Saturday afternoon ritual of doing laundry and having lunch and coffee at the local French bakery on Campus Corner. They had this cream of tomato basil soup that we both loved, served with a crunchy-on-the-outside-chewy on-the-inside French bread roll. Scraping up the few dollars for a bowl of soup and an iced coffee was well worth the sophisticated luxury of chatting away the afternoon in a college-town sidewalk cafĂ©. Our ritual was proof that we were not like those BSU girls, blonde and bouncy and worried about what Jesus would think of us. We were worldly, intellectual, independent, and brave.

To this day, I have an emotional connection to cream of tomato basil soup. Whenever it's on the menu, I usually have to give it a try. I keep an eye out for recipes that seem like they'll replicate the taste from my memories, but it's hard to find just the RIGHT soup. This winter, I have finally found a recipe I like quite a bit. It's super easy to make, and the girls and Mike will eat it happily, so it's a win for everyone. I can't get those French bread rolls, but you can't beat a grilled cheese to go with tomato soup, and I do have access to some rather superior Italian scali bread.

My recipe comes from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything (which I highly recommend)...

Cream of Tomato Soup

2 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons of tomato paste
1 large onion
1 carrot, diced
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 cups peeled, seeded, and chopped tomato (canned is fine; include the juices) [Having experimented with this, I recommend the big cans of imported, Italian branded chopped tomatoes. They really do taste sweeter.]
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil leaves [Obviously, I use basil]
1 cup cream or half-and-half
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
Chopped fresh parsley or basil leaves or crouton for garnish (optional) [Or grated parmesan, because there's no such thing as too much dairy in my universe.]

1. Put the butter in a large, deep pot over medium heat. When hot, add the tomato paste and let it cook for a minute, then add the onion and carrot. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until the onion begins to soften, about 5 minutes.

2. Add the tomato and the herb and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomato breaks up, 10 to 15 minutes. [I'm no professional chef, for sure, but the first time I made this soup, it tasted thin and acidic and too tangy. I discovered that it needed a LOT more salt than I had put in. Keep adding it until the soup suddenly tastes delicious. I think the tomato is just so acidic it needs the salt for balance, even if it feels excessive to you.]

3. Add the half-and-half and puree the soup carefully in a blender, with an immersion blender, or through a food mill. [I LOVE my immersion blender! Worth every penny.] Reheat, garnish, and serve.

As I said, these days I serve this for dinner with grilled cheese sandwiches for my girls and we probably listen to some Shovels and Rope while we eat. But if you really want to do it up right, old skool, put on some black leggings, Doc Martens, and a huge sweater. Make yourself an iced coffee in a pint glass. Put some Bob Marley on the stereo and set your old, tattered copy of To the Lighthouse next to your bowl. Then call your friend, Wendy, and catch up. [I need to call my friend, Wendy.]


  1. That sounds so yummy!!

  2. It's not as crusty as actual French bread, but the Italian-style "French bread" at Italo Bakery on the Medford/Somerville line is cheap, delicious, and nearby.

  3. I love you too, Amanda Rea!!

  4. Wendolene, is that you?! Love you too, girl!


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