As we’ve been so soggily reminded over recent weeks, British summertime is as much a mindset as a season. Although such biblical deluges should come as no surprise (Elizabeth David, looking on the bright side in her essay, Summer Holidays, wonders “in what other climate could one do three month’s work in a fortnight’s holiday?”), they can still throw the cook slightly off balance.
With barbecues and picnics off the menu for the moment, and stews, bakes and stodgy puddings singing their siren call again, it’s not easy to feel inspired about summer cooking. Soup, I think, is the ideal solution. Warming yet light, and perfect for those anaemic seasonal ingredients which won’t quite cut it in a salad, they’re the answer to all your problems. Except, perhaps, how to stop the rain killing your tomato plants.
Although we’re well into peak season for commercially grown, greenhouse tomatoes, most home gardeners won’t be enjoying a glut for another couple of months yet. In the meantime, practise with the the ripest ones you can find: if you don’t have a market nearby which sells the squishy ones off cheap, then buy them a good few days ahead and ripen them at home in the fruit bowl: as Lindsey Bareham explains in her mind-bogglingly comprehensive Big Red Book of Tomatoes, “tomatoes are a sub-tropical fruit and dislike the cold”. I know how they feel.
The other principal ingredient of any soup, of course, is liquid: tomatoes have quite a high water content, but they still need something extra. Chicken stock is a popular choice, used by Nordstrom and Lindsey, while Jamie suggests chicken or vegetable, Jane chicken or light beef, and Margaret Costa will only commit as far as “good stock”. Mark Bittman is even vaguer, with his “stock or water”, and Larousse Gastronomique opts for vegetable, which I find too aromatic, giving the soup a distinct flavour of leek tops and parsley stalks. Beef works surprisingly well, adding a certain meaty body to the soup, and water is predictably unobtrusive, but the star is chicken, which adds a subtle savoury richness without contributing a distinct flavour of its own. Vegetarians should go for a well-diluted vegetable stock.
A note on the amount of stock: perhaps it’s the weather, but I find many of these soups too thin and watery. I think even a tomato soup should have presence on the spoon, which is why I’m going with just over half the amount of stock Jamie suggests. If you prefer something a little lighter, than feel free to increase it.
The usual suspects abound here: Larousse likes celery, Jamie and Bittman go for onion, garlic and carrot with the former also chucking in some basil stalks for good measure, and Jane Grigson uses carrot and onion, seasoned with a bouquet garni. Lindsey keeps things very simple, with a garnish of basil leaves, while Nordstrom’s soup is carrot heavy and uses dried basil. The author acknowledges that “it gets a bad rep for tasting very little like its fresh counterpart. But it’s actually a useful ingredient, and the concentrated flavour is key for a puréed soup like this.” I disagree – to me, it tastes like 1980s pizzas, and the kind of greasy, faded jars of herbs you find when moving house. Fresh basil is a natural match for tomatoes, however, as are onions and garlic, and the carrots are a clever way to add the sweetness the fruit itself might lack. The celery and the bouquet garni seem to me to belong to a different, more wintery dish.
Margaret Costa strikes off on a different path altogether, flavouring her soup with sherry and orange peel which gives it a pleasantly Spanish air – especially as she suggests serving it chilled. Blindfolded, however, I’m not sure I would have positively identified this as a tomato soup – the delicate flavour of the fruit is all but eclipsed by these flamboyances.
Cream of tomato soup is a classic of the genre – the natural wateriness of the fruit makes it an ideal candidate for this treatment, and the soups which eschew any sort of dairy product seem thin in flavour as well as consistency. But it’s important to tread carefully: I think you need double, rather than Jane Grigson’s single cream, which dilutes the flavour without contributing much in the way of body, but Nordstrom add so much their soup becomes somewhat sickly. I can imagine having an eggcup of this before dinner, but a whole bowlful is a daunting prospect.
Jamie whisks in double cream mixed with egg yolks just before serving, which gives his soup a beautifully silky texture, but it’s Larousse’s fromage frais which really inspires me. Its lightness seems more appropriate for the summery, Mediterranean flavours of the soup, and it strikes me that tangy creme fraiche would work even better with the sweet and sour nature of the fruit.
Margaret Costa uses arrowroot as thickener, but this shouldn’t be necessary as long as you keep the ratio of stock to fruit down. Larousse has another trick up its sleeve – their tomato velouté includes potato, which, when blended to a purée, gives it a thick, fluffy texture. It’s a good idea, but it doesn’t feel right for a summery soup like this – another one to keep in reserve for the winter. In any case, the smoothness of cream is more cooling, should the sun ever deign to come out.