Sunday, October 31, 2004

Pierre Berton's Tomato Soup

Back inthe 1950s, the Canadian historial author Pierre Berton worked as a columnist for the Toronto Star. In a series of columns decrying the advent of the TV dinner and other modern convenience foods, he published a set of recipes, written from a "common man" perspective.

The recipes are published in a collection entitled Just Add Water and Stir. The book has been out of print for a long time, but I'll reproduce his recipes here by fisking his essays, beginning with the one for tomato soup. (I've tried this one; it works out a lot better than anything Andy Warhol could come up with.)

To begin, Mr. Berton explains why he's writing about his recipe:

I have been influenced in my decision by a desire for the general public good and by the fact that in September you can now buy a bushel of tomatoes, out along Dundas Highway, for about 2 dollars.

Translation: tomatoes are ripest and cheapest in September, or mid-fall. So this is a seasonal soup. Also that soup tends to taste better with local-grown ingredients in season.

All right, you got some tomatoes? Well, chop them up and throw them in a big pot, skins and all. The number of tomatoes depends entirely on how much soup you want.

With some experimentation, I've found that for 4 servings, the optimum number is 24, sized between a Major League Baseball and a Grade 'A' large egg. As for the types, conventional wisdom suggests using plum or Roma tomatoes, but since we're talking local stuff, beefsteak tomatoes on the vine (sold with the vine still attached) will work as well.

As for a pot, I'd suggest one about the size of a Dutch oven, about 6 quarts.

Make sure you have whole stalks of celery and make sure the leaves are on and that these leaves are fresh, not brown or limp ... Chop up the celery, leaves and all, very fine ...

How much celery? About 4 sticks, washed off and with the leaves intact.

Now get some parsley. Do not do what your wife does and get one sprig of parsley. Women are always putting tiny sprigs of parsley into food. It does no good. Get two double handfuls of fresh parsley, pressed tight, and chop it as fine as you can and throw it into the pot, now redolent of the pungent celery.

Well, we know a few things about this paragraph: 1) Mr. Berton is addressing a typical 1950s male (which isn't all that different from the 2004 model); 2) he doesn't think much of the conventional recipes of the time, which advocate parsley for decorative purposes; and 3) since Mr. Berton was in fact married at the time, he probably spent the night in the doghouse the day this column was printed.

Oh, and the parsley? It's roughly about a third of the parsley bunch you'd buy at the supermarket. Either curly or Italian will do.

Get several bunches of fresh garden onions, with the tops on ... If your grocer keeps onions with limp tops put soap on his windows ... Chop these onions like you've never chopped before. Throw them into the bubbling pot from which the hot incense of the parsley is rising ...
Since onions these days are sold with the tops trimmed, we'll go with 3 onions, again baseball-sized (or 2, the size of a softball) for our recipe. Yellow cooking onions will suffice.

So, now we've got the basic components of the soup into the pot and on heat, and now we move to the seasoning phase (otherwise known as the tasting phase):

Flat, eh? Needs salt. Throw in some until it taste salty enough. Then chop several cloves of garlic and throw them in until it's garlicky enough, then throw in a handful of monosodium glutamate, which is sold under trade names as Ac'cent or is obtainable in bulk in Chinatown.

In deference to modern tastes, we'll omit the MSG. And in the interests of social discourse afterwards, I'd limit the absolute maximum of garlic to 4 cloves, with 2 being a minimal amount.

Now we've got to put some hot tang in that soup. More than anything else, soup needs pepper. Grind a lot of pepper in a pepper grinder and throw it in. Now give the soup several shots of Tabasco sauce and a few shakes of cayenne. It's pretty hard to make my soup too hot, but the occasional tyro has slipped. Well, if you slip, it's easily fixed: just throw in more tomatoes.

Actually if you don't have more tomatoes, regular granulated sugar can dampen the "heat" factor resulting from too much hot stuff.

Other spices Mr. Berton likes to toss in include basil and oregano. He doesn't mention if they're fresh or dried, so we'll go with dried.

A thing to remember: vegetable-based soups take less time than meat-based soups, mainly because vegetable fiber breaks down faster than meat. So figure about 20 minutes to a half-hour, at medium-low heat, before the soup is ready.

At this stage, we can take advantage of a bit of technology that didn't exist in the 1950s: the blender stick. We put the stick in and blend our soup into a pleasing consistency. We could also try straining it, as Mr. Berton recommends, but Men who are not fond of doing dishes know that a it's better to have to wash one pot instead of two. As a final touch, Mr. Berton recommends stirring in Parmesan cheese shortly before serving, in Chinese ramen bowls, with crusty bread on the side.

All right, let's put Mr. Berton's column into a conventional recipe:

At least 24 Roma/plum tomatoes, or in-season tomatoes on the vine, chopped into chunks
4 sticks of celery (including leaves), chopped very fine
1/3 bunch of parsley, chopped very fine
2 onions, chopped fine
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
Freshly ground pepper
Tabasco sauce
Cayenne pepper
Dried basil
Dried oregano
Grated Parmesan cheese

Put the tomatoes in a 6-quart Dutch oven or other large pan; place over medium-high heat. Chop and add the celery, parsley and onions. When the tomatoes have melted into a stew-like consistency, season to taste with salt, garlic, pepper, Tabasco, basil and oregano, reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer for a minimum of 20 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. (For a smooth consistency, use a stick blender to blend the soup to a purée.) A few minutes before serving, stir in grated Parmesan cheese; once the cheese has melted, transfer to bowls and serve with crusty bread.


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