The Tomatrix

P.G. Wodehouse with his wife Ethel

P.G. Wodehouse with his wife Ethel

The Pekingese notwithstanding, I have been a rabid fan of P.G. Wodehouse since I was a youngster.  In one of his most epic Jeeves/Wooster romps, The Code Of The Woosters, Bertie finds himself a guest at a posh country home, in a bedroom where the mantel is festooned with little china figurines.  As the plot thickens and various characters process their woes and frustrations, the tchotchkes get dashed, passionately, to the hearth. At the end of the book, Bertie comments that the “rush of life at Totleigh Towers” has taken the ultimate toll, and not a shepherdess is left standing.

It’s been a little refrain in my head since then, “the rush of life at Totleigh Towers.”  This has tons to do with tomato soup, as I will now demonstrate by deftly changing the subject with an imperceptible flick of my wrist.

It’s the time of year when it must be accepted—in my zip code, anyway—that edible food will not be coming fresh from a patch of earth nearby for several moons to come. I know, and hold dear, persons who are still plucking ripe tomatoes from the vine on their sun-drenched patios. But these activities are just a memory here in the Northeast. If we’re eating it, more than likely it’s coming from a can, a jar or an airplane.

Enter, on its white horse, the preserved tomato. As far as I’m concerned, if you have a can of tomatoes, like so:

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 7.30.42 PMOr a jar of home-canned tomatoes, like so:


then you have dinner (as well as the next day’s thermos) halfway in the bag. Whatever the rush of life may toss your way, you can meet it with soup.

Admittedly, we have a bit of a tomato soup fixation around here. There’s the tomato soup of panic, and the tomato soup of willingness to roast stuff, and a few others that I think I have outlined in this forum. In my rich fantasy life, I spent this week developing a kind of slide rule (that’s a precursor to the app, for you young folk) for tomato soup, so you could triangulate and calculate and manifest a successful tomato soup based on whatever Old Mother Hubbard had stowed in the cupboard. But I am not especially gifted in the techie arts, and I also just noticed that “tomatrix” sounds less like a decision-making instrument and more like some nasty slow food role play identity.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 9.12.43 PM

Frankly, I would be happier if I did not know this existed.

My mind also ran to posting one soup at a time, as a means of improving on the recent 70-day blogging gap (blogging plays the role in my life of the china shepherdess at Totleigh Towers, it would appear) with a barrage of closely-spaced tomato soup posts. But then I noticed that the last post here was a tomato post, and that was so depressing on so many levels that I almost threw in the towel again. Luckily I remembered that none of this was remotely significant on any meaningful scale, and I was able to further reassure myself that it’s useful to see all the soups together, so whichever two people in the universe actually read this can think of novel ways of their own to mix and match ingredients. I am a woman, my college roommate and I used to say (usually in a bakery or department store, but not infrequently in matters of romance), and I can rationalize anything.


The basic premise here is that you’ll want a member (or two) of the allium family (onion/leek/garlic/shallot/scallion), and a few spices that suit the mood, then some auxiliary ingredients for extra vegetal power and/or protein boosting, possibly something creamy, and then you have the option to gild the lily a bit with garnishes (the uptown name for “stuff you fling on top.”) Simple, right? I will put in a little quick and quiet plug here for cooking large batches of your own beans and freezing them in 1 or 2 cup portions, because a home-cooked bean is SO MUCH TASTIER than a canned bean, but I also unabashedly embrace the canned bean. It’s an arse-saver. Always wise to have a few kinds tucked away for dinner emergencies.

One nice thing about bisque-ing the beans into the soup is that they add excellent substance and creaminess without making things heavy, and furthermore bean objectors will not have the traction that a visible, whole bean provides. They don’t even need to know the beans are in there.

As for the type of tomato, it’s of very little consequence. Whole peeled. Diced. Ground peeled. Pureed. Even the fire roasted ones will do, provided you are in the mood for a little char.

The plain tomato soup that starts things off here is really a souped-down version of Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Spicy Tomato Soup, and the tricks of whisking or blending in a little mayonnaise (really?! yes!) for savory creaminess and a little honey to balance the tomatoes’ acidity are handy ones to have up your sleeve.


Plain Tomato Soup    

  • 2T olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 28-oz can of tomatoes
  • Optionally , a couple of peeled, diced carrots
  • 2T mayonnaise (or more, if you like a creamier soup)
  • 2t honey
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Sauté the onion in the oil until it softens. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant. Dump in the tomatoes and 1.5 cans of water and bring to a simmer for 20 minutes or so, then use an immersion blender to incorporate the honey and the (I know it sounds weird) mayonnaise and make a smooooth soup. Adjust the salt and pepper to your liking.

Increase the vegetative power with a couple of carrots, diced, that you simmer in with the tomatoes. Gives it a little more body and still comes across as tomato soup.

Dude it up with some minced fresh dill or basil or something like that, if you feel you must. But this is the kind of tomato soup that you might drink from a mug that has your name, along with possibly a painted bunny or dog, on it, and which begs for grilled cheese sandwiches cut in triangles.


fennel tomato soup

Tomato Soup with Red Pepper, White Beans & Fennel 

  • 2T olive oil
  • 1-2 shallots, minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 small fennel bulb, chopped
  • 1 16-oz jar of roasted whole red peppers, drained and chopped
  • ½ tsp paprika
  • ½ tsp ground coriander
  • 1 28 oz can of tomatoes
  • 1 can white beans, drained
  • optionally, 8-12 ozs chicken broth
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Sauté the shallots for a minute or two in the oil over medium heat, then add the garlic and let it get fragrant, then add the fennel and cook, stirring, until things are nicely softened, about five minutes. Add the spices and heat them through, then add the peppers, and cook a minute or two.  Now the tomatoes and the beans head in to the pot, along with either a tomato can and a half of water or a can of water and the chicken broth. Let all that simmer about twenty minutes, then whack it with the immersion blender until super smooth. Adjust the salt and pepper to your liking

Gild the lily with a drizz of really good olive oil and a little dab of crème fraiche or sour cream or heavy cream, maybe some minced up fennel fronds, or chopped baby arugula, and so forth.



Spicy Tomato Chickpea Soup with Lemon

  • 2 leeks, well rinsed and finely sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2T olive oil
  • 2T ground cumin
  • ¼ to ½ tsp cayenne pepper
  • 2 slices preserved lemon (or a good zatz of lemon juice, plus a scrape of zest, and some additional salt)
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Sauté the leeks for a minute or two over medium heat in the oil, then add the garlic and cook, stirring, until things are nicely softened, about five minutes. Add the spices and heat them through, then add the lemon and mix it in well. Dump in the tomatoes and the beans and a can and a half of water. Let all that simmer about twenty minutes, then whack it with the immersion blender until super smooth. Adjust the salt and pepper to your liking.

Doll up the soup with a sprinkle of crumbled feta (or some other dairy item), or some toasted croutons, or cooked greens, or go crazy and make some little drop dumplings:

  • 1 c AP flour (replace up to ¼ c with a whole grain flour)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1T minced parsley
  • 1 egg

Mix these things well, along with about half a cup of water, until you have a smooth, stiff batter (add a little more water if you need it). Bring a saucepan of water to a low boil, and use two teaspoons to drop little gumball size pieces of dough into the water. Let the little dears cook until they rise up to the surface, then cook one more minute. Drain, and add to finished soup.


coconut soup

And now for the curve ball! The soup that is the thing that is not like the others. Your reward for slogging through all this bisque-y soup.

‘You’re Not From Around Here’ Tomato Soup with Coconut and Other Surprises

  • 1 orange flesh yam, peeled and diced
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • A tsp of grated fresh ginger, if you have it
  • 2 tsp garam masala, or curry powder will do fine
  • 1 28 oz can of tomatoes
  • 1 can of coconut milk
  • 1 10-oz package of frozen corn
  • A big old giant handful of baby spinach leaves
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Sauté the onion in the oil over medium heat until it begins to soften, then add the garlic and ginger (or not) and cook, stirring, until things are softened but not brown, about five minutes. Toss in the cubed sweet potato, then add the spices and heat everything through, tossing to coat. Now add the tomatoes and the coconut milk, and a can and a half of water. Let all that simmer about twenty minutes, until the sweet potato chunks are tender enough, then hit just one corner of the pot with the immersion blender, in effect pureeing about a cup of the mixture to give it some body, but leaving the rest alone and chunky. Add the corn and spinach, heat through, and then adjust the salt and pepper to your liking.

Doesn’t want much in the way of garnish, but some fresh basil (or even better, Thai basil) would be entirely welcome.


last of its kind

produce from this produce

Summer is probably really over.  All kinds of summery things like swimming and lolling around, or at least the potential to loll, are all done with.  It’s misty and cool in the morning and evening and the basil looks all done in.  But there are some matters of summer still to be dealt with.

Canning, for instance, just seems to go and go; there’s all that summer sun and light trapped in the skin of various fruits, and my baskets runneth over.  If tomatillos are pouring into your kitchen, I have only the most glowing and positive things to say about this tomatillo salsa, another harvest from one of Marisa’s awesome linkfests.

I made some plum glop, my version of not quite jam but almost (the version where you don’t care if it sets or not), with the last dregs of the basil so it can offer a little ooh-la-la to the winter oatmeal, and I wish this plum movie was in Smellovision for you:

But I called this meeting to talk about tomatoes.  If you are lucky enough to have one more bucketload of tomatoes to manage, there are a lot of things I can tell you about what to do with them.  Further thanks to Marisa, I encountered the best tomato sauce for canning that I have ever played with, and we’ve also roasted and frozen sheets of the littler fellers.


But if you are dealing with not quite enough tomatoes for canning, or what’s likely to be the last real tomatoes you see until the sun comes around again, here is the tomato sauce my dear little Italian mamma used to make me when I was a bambina.  (All true except for the part of the story where she is Italian.  I think it originally came from Marcella Hazan, though, who was bona fide Italian, so even that part is not ENTIRELY not true.)  It can only work with real tomatoes, just-picked gorgeous real tomatoes from nearby, that come to you when it is hot enough for that to be happening yet cool enough for you to want hot pasta for dinner.  In that sense, it is Walker Evans tomato sauce.


“There’s a wonderful secret here and I can capture it,” Evans told an interviewer in 1971. “Only I can do it at this moment, only this moment and only me.”

It is stunningly simple, the only trick being resisting the temptation to make it more complicated.  No garlic.  No herbs.  No sautéeing or mincing.

tomatoes broke down

You just cut up enough tomatoes to fill a nice big pot, and add an inch (no more!) of water to the bottom of the pot to prevent scorching as they start to cook down, and then cover and cook them until they utterly collapse, as above.


Then you mill them.

What you may want to do now is spread this stuff you milled out onto a thick piece of toast with some stinky cheese:


Or maybe that is just me.  Either way, your next step is to take the smooth puree you created, and drop a whole, peeled onion into it (try to peel it with its ends intact, so it stays whole), and simmer the whole thing, stirring every few minutes, until it is reduced by at least 1/3 and (depending on how watery your tomatoes were, which can vary a lot), as much as 1/2.


When it is reduced enough to have some noticeable thickness, which I can’t really define for you other than to say it won’t be watery anymore, and it will look like sauce, you extract the now worthless onion and then into the puree you put the barest hint of salt, just enough to wake it up and add a little harmony to the sweetness, and (this is the key) a righteous little knob of excellent unsalted butter, a tablespoon or so, just enough to swirl in comfortably and give it a little sheen.

And then:

onna pasta

And right now you are maybe thinking ‘what?! no BASIL?” or maybe “no GARLIC?!” or something like that, or you are tempted to reach for a lot of cheese, or substitute olive oil for the butter, but this is just

T O M A T O  sauce.

The butter gives a subtle little shove to the tomato-ness, not as overpoweringly as cream would, but with a similar effect on your (or my, anyway) inclination to lick your paws and curl up on the top of the laundry basket.

peach of mind

behind basket

My daughters are each in their own way quite practical, especially when it comes to worrying, which—and I don’t mean to toot my own horn here at all–I raise to Olympic levels. They take after their father more in this regard, mercifully, being much more judicious in terms of what they worry over or tolerate others worrying about. After learning I was born on a Wednesday, some years ago one of them crayoned me up a sign that said “Just Say No to Woe,” which I would show you here but our photos are not at all organized, which I am pretty worried about.

Anyway, back in the days when I kept a flower garden, I had a hibiscus plant. I may still have it. Hard to say. But when the girls were small it was glorious, several feet high and blooms as wide across as soup bowls. Every fall, I did as I was told (that right there should give you a sense of how long ago this was) and cut it straight back to the ground. In the spring, there followed several anxious weeks of peering at the spot where it had been, wondering if I had killed it. My oldest caught me at this once, and I explained that every fall I hacked it down and every spring I worried that it was daid. “But it always comes back?” she asked, and I told her that it did. “Maybe,” she said gently, “you can stop worrying about that now.”

She was right, of course. I could, and I did, and consequently I freed up a little mental bandwidth to worry pointlessly about some new and different things.

Most summers, for example, I worry that I have not canned anything at all and the summer is going by and no food has been stored and there goes another year wasted. People start posting jam recipes hither and thither in June, chutney this and jelly that, and on they go when I do not even know where the beach towels got stored last year, let alone where the jar lid magnet got to.

'tillers closeup

Then late August rolls around, and with it tomatoes, peaches, apples, pears and quinces, and I remember that I never can in June or July or even, functionally, August. Labor Day is the real starting bell.

It’s true that I hardly did justice to the berries this year, which are a July phenomenon and which I generally freeze by the bucketload. It’s been an exceptionally sad, busy, tiring year and it was hard enough to make lunch or do laundry, and I did let the berry train pass right by, for the most part. But in canning terms the peals of the starting bell are just ringing out now, really. The wild rumpus only beginning. And so forth. So I don’t have to worry, or anyway not about that.

This weekend Mr. Big Gorgeous Canning Pot was released from the beetle-haven of the basement. From his cavernous depths. I’ve already hauled out a double batch of Indian-spiced pickled beans,


twelve jars of tomatillos,


and 8 glorious pints of what we affectionately call “Peach Glop.” I may redeem myself yet.


With the peaches that escaped the Glopper, I made a quick clafoutis. This has happened before, but since the last time I talked about it here was two years ago, I thought I could talk about it again. And not, you know, worry.


But of course the first clafoutis (though highly edible) failed to puff and become generally gorgeous, so then we all had to suffer through my making it a second time for breakfast the next day, which, as worrisome things go, is not as troubling as other stuff that comes at a girl.

Second one came out fine. So I can stop worrying about that, and move on to other stuff.

whole pie

peach clafoutis

  • two large or three medium ripe peaches, chopped or sliced
  • a good scraping of lemon zest (meyer lemon zest is a boon here)
  • a nice splash of St Germain elderflower liqueur, or failing that, white wine
  • 1/3 c sugar (divided)
  • 3/4 c half and half
  • fat pinch of salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 c all-purpose flour or your favorite GF substitute

To gild the lily, come serving time:

  • a handful of finely minced lemon balm or lemon verbena leaves
  • a dollop of crème fraiche

Mix the peaches, lemon zest, booze and 1T of the sugar in a small bowl, and set aside.

Heat the oven to 375.  Generously butter a 10″ glass pie plate or ceramic baking dish.

In a medium bowl, combine the remaining sugar and all the other ingredients.  Whisk or blend (an immersion blender is nice for this) until perfectly smooth.

Pour the peaches and the juices they have accumulated into the prepared pie dish. Now pour the batter over the fruit, and pop that bad boy into the hot oven.  Bake until puffed, set in the center and browned at the edges, about 30-35 minutes–but keep an eye on it after 25 minutes, as ovens vary a lot. If your oven has a convection setting, use it for the first 15-20 minutes, then you can turn it off and turn the heat down a hair for any remaining time needed.

It will deflate on its way to a temperature you can safely eat it at, but so be it.

slice of clafoutis