Creamless Creamy Tomato Soup

America's Test Kitchen (ATK) mailed me their new cookbook and asked me to make something. Twist my arm. 

I get loads of solicitations in my inbox, and I say no to 99.9% of them. I don't want to clog your feed with product placements and fake enthusiasm for cookware or food novelties that no one needs. Practice is really the key, not expensive pans or specialty food items. And ATK espouses that so beautifully. I've learned so much from letting those 50 test cooks do the work and then tell me about it!

America's Test Kitchen 100 Recipes has countless gorgeous photos and the rationale behind every recipe. The back page says, "Master twenty recipes in this book and you will have earned the right to call yourself a great cook." I love that. It's not about novelty or creativity. Just getting in the kitchen and doing it. (And knowing a good recipe when you see one. Or letting ATK take care of that for you.)

When I get a book like this in my hands, I'm always looking out for one thing--something to answer the perennial question of family dinner. For me, that's got to fit this criteria:

  1. 30-40 minutes
  2. Kid-friendly (thankfully, that's pretty easy with my kids)
  3. Not a heavy reliance on meat. I tend to use meat more as a flavoring than a main dish, and the more I read, the more I want to eat lower on the food chain.
  4. Bonus if I don't have to go to the store.

This soup fit the bill. And as it happens, people will be eating at three different times tonight (basketball season is upon us), so something that can be easily heated up is even better.

This soup gets its creamy mouth feel from olive oil and bread that becomes a silken puree in the blender. And the croutons are good, old-fashioned full-of-butter cubes of loveliness which I'll need to hide so they don't get devoured without the soup. All it needs is a salad or some grilled cheese sandwiches. Or both, if you don't have to make six trips to the Boys and Girls Club gym.

In this week of giving thanks, it occurs to me how many millions of people might not be in the mood, and how underservedly lucky I am to have a stove to cook on, a pantry that's filled, and a bed to sleep in. It's always cold somewhere, and I hope the love I give today, in the kitchen and elsewhere, warms this world up a little bit. Happy Thanksgiving, friends.

Creamless Creamy Tomato Soup
Serves 6-8. Make sure to purchse canned whole tomatoes in juice, not puree. If half of the soup fills your blender by more than two-thirds, process the soup in 3 batches.

 1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
pinch red pepper flakes (optional)
1 bay leaf
2 (28-oz) cans whole tomatoes
3 slices hearty white sandwich bread, crusts removed, torn into 1" pieces
1 Tb. packed brown sugar
2 c. chicken broth
2 Tb. brandy (optional)
1/4 c. chopped fresh chives
1 recipe butter croutons (see below) 

Heat 2 Tb. oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, if using, and bay leaf. Cook, stirring frequently, until onion is translucent, 3-5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and their juice. Using potato masher, mash until no pieces bigger than 2 inches remain. Stir in bread and sugar. Bring soup to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until bread is completely saturated and starts to break down, about 5 minutes. Discard bay leaf.

Transfer soup to blender. Add 1 Tb. oil and process until soup is smooth and creamy, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and repeat with remaining soup and remaining 1 Tb. oil. Rinse out Dutch oven and return soup to pot. Stir in chicken broth and brandy, if using. return soup to boil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle soup into bowls, sprinkle with chives, and drizzle with olive oil. Serve with croutons.

Butter Croutons
Thick-sliced bread works best. Do not use thin-sliced. Either fresh or stale bread can be used. If using stale, reduce the cooking time by about 2 minutes.

 6 slices hearty white sandwich bread, crusts removed, cut into 1/2" cubes (about 3 cups)
salt and pepper
3 Tb. unsalted butter, melted

Adjust oven rack to upper middle position and heat to 350. Combine bread cubes and salt and pepper to taste in a medium bowl. Drizzle with butter and toss well with rubber spatula to combine.

Spread cubes in a single layer on rimmed baking sheet. Bake croutons until golden brown and crisp, 8-10 minutes, stirring halfway through baking. Let cool on a baking sheet to room temperature. (Crotouns can be stored at room temperature for up to 3 days.) 

Advent 2014: Creamy Carrot and Yam Soup with Coconut Milk

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Emily is here for the weekend. Three kick-ass days of walks, snacks, gifts, and now we are sitting side-by-side at my kitchen table with our twin laptops. She's being good and working on her final paper for the quarter, and I'm being bad and blogging instead of working. Bliss.

My Dandelion Organics box (bless it!) includes carrots almost every week this time of year. While we munch on them pretty constantly, I'm having a surplus issue. The answer is soup. 

As you are aware (Like, "Shut-up-already-Sarah!" aware), I enjoy facing down a disorganized, overstuffed fridge and tackling it. So a few bunches of forgotten carrots makes me happy. 

I was telling Emily this morning that one of the principles of my life has been, "Take what is given." There are too many choices. Too many choices in the cereal aisle, too many choices of church denominations. Too many choices of water bottles at Target and self-help books at the bookstore. I have been blessed so many times by deciding to go the neighborhood school instead of considering all my options. Or by making a little backyard bouquet of branches instead of driving to the store for a gift. Or by rescuing the carrots instead of entertaining every recipe for soup that might be out there. Purposely limiting my choices has kept me sane.

And since it's Advent and I'm still into Mary, I think of her again: May it be to me as you have said. Not submission, but surrender. Not fighting against her life, but finding the mystery (or the carrots) that are already there. 

Creamy Carrot and Yam Soup with Coconut Milk

2 Tb. vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tb. favorite Thai curry paste (red or yellow)
3 Tb. fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 Tb. soy sauce
1.5 pounds carrots, peeled and chopped
1 large yam, peeled and chopped
1 15 oz. can coconut milk
juice of one lime
salt

In a large, heavy stockpot, heat vegetable oil. Add onion, garlic, and ginger and saute until soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Add curry paste and soy sauce and saute a couple minutes more, adding a splash of water if necessary.

Add carrots, yam, and water to cover. Simmer for abour 40 minutes until everything is very soft. Using a blender or food processor, puree in batches until very smooth. Return to the pot, add coconut milk, bring to a simmer, and add salt and lime juice to taste. 

Serve with toasted coconut or chopped cilantro if you want.

Curried Parsnip Soup with Coconut Milk

Roasted Parsnips

If you have root vegetables piling up (I might be in the minority here), you can do this:

Preheat your oven to 425.

Peel and roughly chop enough of them to fill up two regular-sized baking sheets (spaced as I did above so you get some roasty bits and don't end up steaming everyhing.) Here, I did about 10 large parsnips (you could do carrots or a mix of carrots and parsnips), 3 big yams (or 5ish smaller ones), and one large onion. Cut a squash in half (acorn, butternut, sugar pumpkin) and take out the seeds. (You could also do all squash or all yams.)  Rub everything with olive oil and salt. Turn the squash upside down and roast everything together until super soft, about 45 minutes depending on your oven.

In a couple batches, put roasted veggies in your blender and food processor with enough water to make everything run smoothly. Pour puree into a big soup pot Add 1 Tb. curry powder, salt (don't skimp), juice from a large lime, one can of coconut milk, a couple tablespoons of brown sugar, and more water to your liking. (I don't like my pureed soups too thick.) Bring to a simmer and taste, adding more of anything and maybe adding some cayenne if you're a spice lover.

Serve just like it is or with yogurt, chopped cilantro, shredded coconut, or thinly sliced green onions on top.

Tomato Carrot Soup

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If you're around me for more than 2 minutes, you'll probably hear me talk about Monday Night Dinner. When we moved up to Bellingham 2 years ago, I could foresee a problem. Though we strategically bought a house 4 minutes from my parents, I wondered how often we'd see one another. Coordinating, though I'm good at it, is the bane of my existence. Propose a set of dates and times, fiddle around with who can do what, set a date, remind everyone when the dates gets close, reschedule because someone gets sick, and do the whole thing all over again. Agh! Hell!

So I proposed dinner once a week. Weekends? Forget it. Everyone's too busy. Thursday is the new Friday, so Thursdays are out. Everything else seems to be scheduled on a Tuesday or Wednesday so Mondays were the obvious choice. And to say "Every Second and Fourth" or other such nonsense seemed too much to keep track of. And it's not a potluck. No retirees around here. Everyone's coming straight from work.

So were were doing that with my parents for a few months when my father-in-law (who lives TWO minutes away) caught wind of it and started coming. Then my sister-in-law and her family said, "What about us?" Then my father-in-law's partner and her girls said, "What about us?" So we are now 12. I reserve the right to cancel whenever I'm getting home too late or otherwise overwhelmed, so we average about 3 Mondays/month.

As you might imagine, the key here is to keep it simple. Stupidly simple. A dozen people on a weeknight with an 8:30 bedtime for the kids means the following:

  • Buffet style. Always.
  • I know it should mean paper plates, but it doesn't. I've asked everyone else to do dishes. Cooks privilege, right?
  • Nothing too spicy. 
  • Customizable--endless "build-your-own" menu items like rice bowls, burritos, spring rolls. We have rice and beans a lot.
  • Shopping and prep on the weekend. Not too much prep, though, which would break the Stupidly Simple rule.
  • Huge batches. Huge. Usually with a seasonal salad (last night it was kale, slivered raw fennel, dried figs, and apple) and some kind of starch in case the kids don't like the main dish. Rice saves the day always.
  • No appetizers and no dessert unless someone else decides to show up with them.

And yes, soup. So much soup! This is why it was invented. Beef barley, minestrone, Thai chicken, tortilla. And Tomato Carrot. I always have canned tomatoes around and about 6 bags of half-finished carrots floating around in my produce drawers. It doesn't matter how dried out they get--they'll still make great soup! Serve this with grilled cheese sandwiches and some bitter greens and everyone will be happy.

And what do I get out of Monday Night Dinners? Besides a teensy bit of exhaustion? A lot. Loretta and her cousin Hazel disappear into the basement and play all night. Wyatt plays indoor hoops with Yancey's dad and hangs around the adults making (very funny) jokes. I don't have to leave my house. I can see almost all my family in one place once a week, which is a miracle. I get lots of thanks and appreciation, and I know the walls of this house soak up the noise, laughter, and cooking steam. Life is way too short not to see the people you love.

Tomato Carrot Soup
This soup can be made vegan--use water instead of chicken stock and leave out the cream. Or non-dairy--use the chicken stock but leave out the cream. I think the cream gives it a lovely richness, but if you cook the veggies long enough and have a powerful blender, you'll get almost the same creaminess without it. 

Big glug of olive oil
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 or 3 garlic cloves, minced
3 or 4 large carrots (or the equivalent baby carrots), peeled and thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
2 28 oz. cans canned whole tomatoes with juice
Enough chicken stock or water to cover everything by about 2"
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4-1 c. heavy cream (optional) 

Heat olive oil in a large heavy stockpot. Add onions until getting soft, 7 or 8 minutes, then add garlic, carrots, and bay leaf and sauté for about 5 minutes more. Add tomatoes and chicken stock, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, partially cover, and cook until everything is soft, about 30 minutes. Puree mixture in a blender or food processor. Return to the pot and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add cream if desired and warm. Serve with a swirl of cream on top.

Tomato Barley Soup

Tomato barley soup

Three generations. Riding bikes in the sun. 

After our bike ride with Grammy, Poppy, and the kids yesterday, I told Yancey, "This is a very short window. The oldest are healthy, the youngest can ride a 2-wheeler, and the 10 year-old still wants to be with us." A little blip on the screen, really. And all the more precious for it.

After our ride, we came back to the house and grandparents played cards with kids while I made dinner. We have people over a couple times a week, and I usually plan ahead more than I did last night. Nothing prepped, chopped, or even dreamed up. (I did have a pitcher of Sanity Sangria in the fridge, which buys a lot of time. That came into being as it always does--two half-finished, very mediocre bottles of red wine. A little triple sec and some fruit juice and a miraculous transformation ensues.)

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Enter Refrigerator Soup, though I've named it something else here. A vegetable soup like this: 

  1. Is a wonderful way to pack in oodles of veggies.
  2. Makes great leftovers (not that I have ever devoted any time to thinking about that).
  3. Is endlessly variable.
  4. Makes a pretty picture.
  5. Kind of demands biscuits. I made a divine variation, which I'll post later this week.

Loretta only ate half her bowl, but that's alright. Look at this face. It's hard to be tough about anything.

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Tomato Barley Soup
The great thing about a soup like this is that it's almost impossible to mess it up. Don't go light on the salt, taste as you go, and have fun cleaning out your fridge!

 1/4 c. olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped or thinly sliced
2 large carrots, finely chopped
1 large red bell pepper, finely chopped
4 cloves minced garlic
2 cans chicken stock (or water)
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes with juice
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1/2 head of small cabbage, finely shredded
Few big handfuls of chopped fresh kale 
1/2 cup quick-cooking barley (or 1 cup cooked grain, like rice)
big handful fresh basil, coarsely chopped
juice of 1/2 lemon
lots of coarse salt
pepper 

Heat up the olive oil in a large stockpot or Dutch oven. Add onion and cook for 5 minutes. Add carrots, red pepper, and garlic, and sauté until soft, about 10 more minutes. 

Add chicken stock and tomatoes and simmer for 20 minutes. Stick an immersion blender in and puree about 1/4 of the soup to give it more body.

Add cabbage, kale, and barley and cook for 10 minutes. Add basil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and add more of anything to taste (including more water if you want your soup thinner).

Serve unadorned or with lemon zest, parmesan, or more basil on top.