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Take the chill out with Creamy Tomato Basil Soup

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Fall is slowly settling in. As I write, the sky is charcoal gray with ribbons of white bleeding into the darkness. The sun poked through a break in the clouds for a few minutes, trees bare of leaves casting shadows on the dormant grass. The outdoor thermometer reads 38 degrees.

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I can see the last blooms of my perennial flowers outside, adding contrasting color of deep yellow beside the lavender-colored mums flowering right beside them. Brown pine needles and dry leaves are scattered over the grass. It's definitely fall.

The plumber working to unplug the drain in my kitchen sink made a run out to his truck and came back in with an announcement. "It's snowing. Well, more like a fine sleet."

And that does it. I know it's time to make soup. Not just any soup. It must be Creamy Tomato Basil Soup, eaten with a grilled cheese sandwich, the same meal that often brought warm comfort to my young family on chilly days long ago.

Carrots and onions still remaining from a market basket I purchased a few weeks ago and a rib of celery from my refrigerator got chopped up into small bits. I wanted the vegetables to cook quickly in tomatoes and broth after being sautéed until tender. A clove of garlic, pulled from a bulb fresh out of a local garden, was minced under the sharp blade of my chef's knife. When the onion, carrot and celery were tender, the minced garlic was added to the pot and sautéed for just a couple of minutes. Minced garlic is likely to burn if it is put into the pot at the same time as the other vegetables. Overcooked garlic turns bitter and will ruin your pot of soup.

I was tempted to use some of the fresh tomatoes from my garden that I puréed and put into the freezer a few weeks ago. But I decided to save them for a frigid day in the middle of winter when I would appreciate the garden-fresh flavor of summer. Instead, I took a can of diced tomatoes from my pantry. The sweet, tender vegetables simmered in the tomatoes with their juice and some vegetable broth.

While the soup simmered, I pulled out some of my favorite vintage restaurant china I've collected over time. I toasted some 7-sprouted grains English muffins. A slather of butter melted into the warm muffins as I sliced my preferred cheddar cheese to veil over the toasted halves.

The soup was transferred into the blender and pureed until smooth and creamy. It went back into the pot to get additional flavor from a dash of lemon salt, a grinding of black pepper, a glug of rich half-and-half and a handful of fresh basil, the last of the green, fragrant leaves from a local garden.

Cheese-gilded, buttery toasted English muffins spent seconds under the broiler. As the soup heated on the stove, the cheese melted and bubbled in the oven. It's a grilled sandwich of sorts, open-faced, crunchy and cheesy.

Quickly, I grabbed a spoon, sat down and ate the pureed thick, creamy soup spiked with basil. Immediately, I felt the reminiscent comfort of tomato soup. It brought color to my gray day.

The recipe for Creamy Tomato Basil Soup makes four servings for hungry, soup-loving people. If you are cooking for two, the remaining soup can be used as a sauce for a baked pasta dish. Layer cooked tortellini or ravioli (both can be purchased in the refrigerator case at the grocery store) into a shallow casserole dish. Top with Creamy Tomato Basil Soup and sprinkle generously with mozzarella cheese. Bake in a 350-degree oven until heated through and cheese is melted.

Cook once. Create two meals. Bring color and comfort to fall days.

Creamy Tomato Basil Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 yellow onion, chopped small

1 rib of celery, chopped small

1 carrot, chopped small

1 chubby clove garlic, minced

1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes

3/4 cup vegetable or chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon lemon salt

2 tablespoons half-and-half

Handful of fresh basil leaves, chopped small

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat olive oil in a 3-quart pot. When the oil is hot, add chopped onion, celery and carrot. Sauté until the vegetables are softened and very fragrant. Add garlic. Sauté for 2 minutes. Add can of diced tomatoes, including the juice, and the broth. Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Cover pot and simmer until carrots are tender, 20 to 30 minutes.

Use a ladle to transfer soup to a blender. Blend until mixture is sooth and creamy. Return soup to pot. Stir in sugar and lemon salt. Add half-and-half and chopped basil. Stir to blend. Taste and season with freshly ground black pepper according to taste. Serve hot. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Tips from the cook

--Make lemon salt by whirling a tablespoon of fine sea salt with the grated zest of 1 lemon in a coffee grinder reserved for herbs and spices. A blender will do a fine job, too. Keep the lemon salt in a jar in the refrigerator. It will keep its wonderful fragrance of lemon for one week. In the book, "Salad as a Meal," author Patricia Wells claims she uses this salt on virtually everything.

--Be cautious when puréeing hot soup in a blender. Hold a kitchen towel over the top to prevent hot splashes from hitting you when you turn on the blender.

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