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Faster Roasted Tomato Soup

Yeah, I know, it’s early March, the winds and rain and snow and tornadoes are still doing their thing around much of the country and here in Pasadena the chill has set in…sort of, to about 75 degrees or so daytime. With actual rain last night.

Chunky pan-roasted tomato soup

And it’s tax season.

So what we really need is something to brighten the last dregs of winter. I was thinking tomato soup, myself.

Why was I thinking it? Because so many food articles in the past couple of weeks have mentioned slow-roasted tomatoes, charred tomatoes, and so on to improve the obviously lacking flavor of winter tomatoes and avoid using canned ones. One  chef got flamed for suggesting in the New York Times food section that “local” is not the sane way to go with produce that simply isn’t producing in winter in the northeast, and that canned tomatoes are not the worst idea in the world after all. Shame! Shame!

Actually, I agree with her–and not just because I’m the original purple thumb when it comes to gardening. In a surreal reversal of my hideously lacking garden skills, I actually have three–count ’em, three–grape tomato plants in bloom and producing the occasional tomato-let as we speak. I even have basil and rosemary and mint and thyme that I haven’t killed through inattention and forgetting to water. But really, even so, there’s no way I’d set myself up as a homesteader on those flimsy credentials. We’d starve.

Tomatoes are one of those things–either you’ve got the Fresno specials (or something local and preferably from your own garden so you can brag) in the summer and they’re divine with nothing but a bit of olive oil and vinegar, or even just plain, or else it’s winter and you’ve got blah tomatoes that are kind of orange and grainy. Or you’ve got canned tomatoes, preferably no-salt Romas. Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that in winter. Or any other time you’re making microwave marinara.

ripening roma tomatoes

However…If your supermarket tomatoes will consent to ripen on a counter near a window for a couple of days, you might be able to eke out some actual tomato flavor from them. They may still not be fantastic, and one or two may start to develop soft spots, but it’s still worth doing anyway. Keep turning them gently every day to minimize the risk of spoilage and use them. They should at least redden.

And as mentioned above in the numerous food section articles, you can do the slow-roast-on-parchment-in-the-oven thing to them and they’ll be a bit more flavorful for sauces and tomato soup. But it takes about 45 minutes to an hour. And I’m impatient.

So today I rescued a couple of aging Roma tomatoes from my countertop and decided to try pan-roasting them, as in frying pan. Would they take on a char? Would they taste better? Would they make soup worth eating?

Bear in mind this is an experiment more than a proper recipe with specific quantities, but yes, it worked, and it only took about 10 minutes from start to finish. Maybe the flavor’s not as glorious as if I’d oven-roasted them for an hour, but the lack of waiting makes it reasonably good, and the garlic makes up for the rest of it.

Equipment-wise, all you need is a nonstick frying pan, a microwave oven (optional, actually), a sharp knife and a bowl. If you want the soup less chunky and more puréed, a stick blender or food processor is good, but I didn’t bother today.

I was also halfway thinking that if this worked, I’d do the same thing for some tomatillos and peppers for a stovetop pan-grilled salsa next, since I’m not sure exactly where the broiler unit is on my oven, but it appears to be way down near the floor. Not nice.

So anyway, that probably explains the presence of cumin somewhat–well that, and that my daughter likes it in cream-of-tomato soup. If you’re not sure you want to try it, cook the soup, spoon out a small sample, add a tiny pinch of cumin and taste-test it.

The following soup is salt-free but pretty flavorful–actually, a lot more flavorful than the raw tomatoes from the same batch.

You could probably get something close to this and faster still by pulsing a can of no-salt roma tomatoes (e.g., Trader Joe’s) in the food processor to break them up, heating a little garlic in olive oil until just golden in a frying pan, adding the tomatoes and flavorings and enough water to make it your preferred soup thickness, and simmering just until hot through.

Quick-Roasted Roma Tomato Soup

Quantities: Soup-for-one used 2 roma tomatoes, a small-to-medium clove of garlic, about a cup of water total and maybe a teaspoon of vinegar. Use your best judgment.

Time: about 10-15 minutes

  • Roma tomatoes, washed and cut in bite-sized chunks
  • olive oil
  • garlic clove(s, as needed), minced/mashed/grated
  • water
  • sprig or pinch of thyme
  • splash of vinegar
  • pinch of ground cumin, optional but my daughter and I both liked it a lot.

Heat a spoonful of olive oil in a nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the chunks of tomato and toss lightly, then let them sit and fry without moving, preferably in a single layer with space between them, for a minute or so. Mash, mince or grate a clove of garlic and sprinkle it into the pan between tomatoes so it has a chance of turning a bit golden.

tomatoes in frying pan

After a bit, toss the tomatoes in the pan again. Once they’re starting to brown at the edges you have two options. (Well, three–if you’re puréeing the soup, do it now before adding water; see the note at the end of the recipe.)

IMG_4874

Pan-browning works better if there’s some space between the chunks of tomato.

Frying pan only: This takes a bit longer. Add water and the other ingredients to taste and simmer it all in the frying pan until it thickens, mashing down on the tomatoes with a spatula once in a while.

Microwave: Slide the browned tomatoes out into a microwaveable bowl or container and add a little water, maybe 1/3 to halfway up the tomatoes, and the thyme. Microwave a minute or so uncovered until they heat up and start breaking down. Time depends on the quantity of tomatoes, so keep an eye on the microwave and see how it goes. Ten tomatoes? maybe 5 or 6 minutes, maybe more. Depends on your container, your oven power and dimensions, etc. Stop the microwave and stir the tomatoes around once or twice during the cooking time. Stop the microwave altogether if the tomatoes bubble up so much that they’re in danger of boiling over and making a mess.

The tomatoes break down a little in the microwave

After microwaving, the pan-browned tomatoes have broken down a little.

Meanwhile, pour a bit of water–half a cup? a cup?– in the frying pan and swirl it well to dissolve the browning and bits of garlic left behind. When the tomatoes have finished microwaving, add this water to them. Add a bit of vinegar (a splash or a couple of spoonfuls to taste, depending on how many tomatoes you have), and cumin if you want it, stir and/or mash further, and taste. Reheat in the microwave.

Note: If you are going to purée this soup but you don’t have a stick blender, do it just after you’ve browned the tomatoes. Put the fried tomatoes into a food processor or blender by themselves and purée them without any liquid, so they don’t splash hot stuff all over the kitchen and you. Add a little water at a time to bring them up to the thickness you like, and reheat either in the frying pan or the microwave to thicken slightly, then add flavorings as desired.

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