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Doni’s Tomato Basil Soup – A Delicious Way to Start 2011

Please don’t think I’m a vain cook, but here’s one problem I have when I make up a recipe that turns into a crowd-pleasing keeper. People ask for the recipe, and then I get this look on my face (what the heck … I forgot how I made it) which they misunderstand (what a recipe hog … she’s going to keep it a secret!).  I’m stumped for an answer, because I cook as I go along and the truth is that sometimes I forget how I got there. (Baking is less forgiving, so I’m more likely to have a recipe to share.)

Maybe you can relate, and find that when you make soups, sauces and things like lasagna, you wing it, as I do.  As I cook I taste and I sniff and I simmer and I keep adding ingredients and adjusting until I’m happy with the results, or until I end up throwing the mess out because it’s inedible. (I’ve done that. Sometimes even the label “chutney” can only go so far.) For me, making up a recipe takes me into a Zenlike cooking zone. Sharing it after so many steps is like going on a long, circuitous hike through a thick forest and when I finally arrive at my destination, I’d find it impossible to draw a map to describe how I got there.

But the thing is, I’ve had so many requests for my Tomato Basil Soup that I’ll do my best to remember how I made it.  To myself, I refer to this as Cheater Tomato Basil Soup, because I depend upon huge cans of diced tomatoes, and jars of pesto (made and canned in the summer, when basil’s growing like Shasta crab grass), which allows me to skip the peeling-chopping tomatoes and julienning (is that a word?)- basil steps.

I created a recipe that gets right down to the business of producing the most concentrated tomato basil flavor possible. Also, while I’m not usually a fan of creamy tomato basil soups (childhood flashbacks to Campbell’s Tomato Soup made with milk),  the cheese in the pesto gives a slightly creamy taste and unexpected texture, not to mention the pesto’s finely ground nuts, which nobody can quite place when they drink the soup. Shhhh. It’s our secret. Ground nuts.

I may not have ever disclosed this culinary trivia about me, but I can’t stand serving naked soup. Even when I recently gave chicken broth to my poor twin when she was sick (she’s fine now, thank you), I added a shaving of Parmesan and a sprinkle of parsley, mainly for color. (She asked for the next cup sans topping. But she was sick. I’ll cut her some slack.)

For my Tomato Basil Soup topping, I use my favorite trick of garnishing with a bit of what’s in it, plus a little extra. First I drizzled a swirl of sour cream on the soup, followed by a line of thinned pesto, then some baby sauteed tomatoes, and finally, some homemade croutons.  (You don’t buy croutons, right? Save that stale bread, freeze it, and when you feel like sawing something into small pieces, get out the bread, cut it in rustic pieces, let it air dry, then shake it in a bag with a little olive oil, garlic powder, fennel seeds, dried parsley, salt and pepper, then roast it in a 250-degree oven until they’re golden and crispy and gorgeous. Careful. They’re as addictive as potato chips.)

Rather than calling it a cheater soup, let’s celebrate the shortcuts that make this soup a winner.  Not that I’ve entered it in a contest (maybe I should), but I did prepare 10 gallons of it for the Power the Seniors Celebrity Soup Kitchen event a few months back. An unscientific survey (among friends and family -pressed for an answer) decided that my Tomato Basil Soup was absolutely the best soup ladled up that night. That’s quite a feat, considering there were professional chefs who prepared some terrific soups, too.

Oh, by the way,  the event itself was a huge success, too.  This year’s Soup Kitchen netted nearly $15,000, almost a record since the Soup Kitchen’s inception.  Nearly 450 people showed up at the Veterans Hall to dine on gourmet soups and enjoy  live entertainment from the Straight Ahead Big Band. More than 100 volunteers served up 155 gallons of soup, 600 salads and rolls and raffled off more than 50 gift baskets donated by Shasta County employees, local businesses and community members.

Among the soups was my Tomato Basil Soup, which some assured me was the best tomato basil soup served that night. OK, yes, if you insist on knowing, it was also the only tomato basil. Either way, it’s good. You’ll like it.

Doni’s Winning Tomato Basil Soup

Olive oil
7 cloves garlic, mashed with salt until it’s a paste
2 large white onions
1 No. 10 can diced tomatoes (Cash & Carry has them … tell them I sent you)
2 cups prepared pesto
8 cups best chicken broth
2 cups white wine
Salt and pepper, to taste

For garnish:

Sour cream
Pesto, thinned with a little olive oil or water
Sauteed baby tomatoes (or diced, regular tomatoes)

In a very large soup pot, slowly, over low heat, saute the onions in olive oil until they’re translucent and wonderfully caramelized. Add the garlic and saute until just before the garlic turns toasty (brown garlic guarantees bitter garlic). Add the tomatoes, turn up the heat and cook the mixture until it’s simmering. Add the pesto and stir well to incorporate into the mix.

Add the chicken broth, and cook some more. (By the way, I recently bought a bargain case of delicious Wolfgang Puck’s Organic, Free-Range Roasted Chicken Broth at the Redding Grocery Outlet.) Add the white wine and simmer for about 30 minutes. Taste and see what you think. At this point, it’s up to your taste buds. Adjust the garlic, salt and pepper, and even wine and broth to your preferences. (I may have used more wine than I suggest here. I confess. I like a boozy soup.)

Yes, this does make a vat of soup. You can either cut the recipe down by using smaller cans of tomatoes and less of everything else. Or you can make it all, then freeze it so you can have it all winter.

Independent online journalist Doni Greenberg founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Greenberg was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com