From Soup…

“Filet steaks with blue cheese butter, those lentils you make, and brussels sprouts like we had for Thanksgiving.”

Everyone here gets a birthday dinner full of their favorite foods, from soup to nuts, and this was my son’s answer to the question, “Have you given any thought to your birthday dinner?”

“Oh, and I’d like a soup,” he added, “to start.”

What kind of soup? I wondered.

“Anything.  Well, anything as long as it isn’t weird.”

“So no curried cauliflower soup?” I confirmed with a smile.  I know that, for him, weird sometimes means curried cauliflower.  “So what isn’t a weird soup?  Can you give me some guidance.”  This should be the birthday’s person’s choice after all.

My son shrugged.  “You know.  Mushroom.  Onion.  Leek and potato.  Regular soup, like those ones.  Only not those.”

Again I understood.  We had had all of these on cold weeknights within the last two weeks.  Ben’s birthday soup must not be something served for a weeknight supper, but still a standard, a member of the canon of soups, if you will.

I had to go with tomato.  If tomato soup isn’t canon-worthy, then nothing is.  I even managed to work in the taste of its equally classic grilled cheese accompaniment.  Check out how.

Ben’s Birthday Soup with Cheese Focaccia Croutons (serves 4, with one bowl leftover for the next day)

  • 12 homemade croutons
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 2 carrots, roughly chopped
  • 2 ribs of celery, roughly chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp. dark brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp. dry sherry (or balsamic vinegar)
  • 2 cups vegetable stock, plus 1/4 cup additional (chicken stock may be substituted)
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 or 5 fresh basil leaves, optional

Step one:  Croutons

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Remember that cheese and garlic focaccia you made with me the other day?  Cut one 3/4-inch by 9-inch slice from the loaf.  (Of course, if you didn’t make the focaccia along with me, feel free to use any other lovely bread you have on hand, cheese bread if possible).  Cut this slice into 12 equal cubes.

Heat a small amount of olive oil in a medium skillet set over medium high heat.  Skillet should be oven proof.  When the oil gets shimmery looking, place the croutons in the pan in a single layer.  Brown one side, then turn and brown the other.

When both sides have turned golden brown, pop the skillet into the oven and set the kitchen timer for 15 minutes.  After 15 minutes, remove the pan from the oven and the croutons from the pan.  Set on brown paper or paper towels to drain.  Set aside.

Step Two:  Roasted garlic

Leave the oven on and set it to 350 degrees.  Cut the top off a good, firm head of garlic, leaving the root end intact.  Peel away as much of the outer papery skin as possible while still leaving the garlic cloves within their individual husks.

Place the prepared head of garlic into a small baking dish.  The fit should be close without being too snug.  Add to the dish about 1/4 cup of vegetable (or chicken) stock and a splash of olive oil.

Cover the top of the baking dish with aluminum foil and wrap it tightly.  Set the baking dish in the oven for an hour, or until you can pierce very soft cloves of garlic easily with a sharp knife.

Remove the garlic from the baking dish and let cool slightly on a chopping board.  When cool enough to handle, take the head of garlic apart, clove by clove, and squeeze the soft roasted garlic out of the husks.  Once you have removed it all, use the flat end of a chef’s knife and smash the garlic into a smooth paste.  Set aside.

Step Three:  Putting it all together

In a large saucepan set over medium heat, heat 2 Tbsp. of olive oil.  Add to the olive oil the onions, carrots and celery and saute until the onions soften but do not brown.  Add to this the garlic paste and stir to combine well.  Add 1 Tbsp. dark brown sugar and 1 Tbsp. dry sherry (or balsamic vinegar).  Stir to combine.  Add 2 cups of vegetable (or chicken) stock, cover the pot.  Bring the liquid to the boil then reduce the heat and maintain a simmer (still covered) until all the vegetables are soft, about 15 minutes.

Stir in 1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes (not sauce, not puree).  One quart of fresh crushed tomatoes may be substituted in season.  Continue to simmer the soup for a few minutes and taste to correct the seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.  At this time you may also throw in a few basil leaves that have been shredded or chiffonaded, or use no herbs at all.

Remove the pot from the heat.  Using a stick blender right in the saucepan (or a stand blender, working in batches), puree the soup until very smooth.  If soup seems too thick for your taste, thin it with a few tablespoons of water, or extra stock if you have some.  Return the soup to the heat using a low flame, and heat the soup through for serving.

Ladle soup into bowls and garnish each serving with 3 cheese croutons.  Serve immediately.

©2011  Jane A. Ward