The perfect soup as the season changes from summer to fall

Tomato soup, the super sweet, gelatinous red goo that comes in a can, used to comfort me, especially when served with a grilled cheese sandwich for dunking.

But I’ve realized that it is the memory of that soup, not its reality that I crave. In fact, the last time I tried it, it didn’t taste very good at all. It was vaguely metallic, definitely sweeter than I wanted and certainly lacking any real tomato flavor.

I’m not usually a fan of fresh tomato soups either. I think it’s because I expect the childhood version but what I’m usually served is a heavy, overly spiced substitute that tastes like sauce, not soup.

My mom used to love stewed tomatoes — just tomatoes, perhaps with a little salt and pepper, preferably from the garden that have been peeled and stewed, then finished with a generous pat of butter. She’d smack her lips as she ate a steamy bowl with a slice of white bread.

I never liked those much either.

So for a while, I lived without. And as for the grilled cheese, it’s not exactly a model for healthy eating, so I lived without that, too.

But then I gave Classic Tomato Soup a try. I first saw it in an issue of “Everyday Food” magazine, then somehow I lost it. I conducted to no avail a couple of half-hearted searches through my stack of food magazines and then gave up. Then one day, when I was looking for something else, there it was. I gave it a try.

It called for thyme, which I left out, and for canned, whole tomatoes. I substituted puree that I’d home-canned from my garden crop. It also called for using an immersion blender to finish the soup, but since I'd use the puree, I skipped that step as well.

It was delicious, a smooth, tomato-full broth punctuated by bits of chopped onion, not as sweet as the canned original, but rich and fresh — a taste of the summer with the warm steamy comfort we crave in the fall.

Sometime later, I read a column by Mark Bittman, a food writer for The New York Times and the author of "How to Cook Everything." He’s a wonderful writer and cook who uses simple techniques and delicious ingredients to make food that’s good for us and the planet.

It was one of his stream of consciousness columns, where he lists a million short ideas for great combinations of food. It was called “101 Simple Salads for the Season.” My heart skipped a beat when I read: “Make a crisp grilled cheese sandwich, with good bread and not too much good cheese. Let it cool, then cut into croutons. Put them on anything, but especially tomato and basil salad. This you will do forever.”

Well, they are good on a tomato and basil salad, but they are positively triumphant when you plop them, one or two at a time, into your bowl of this Classic Tomato Soup. You really do have to make the sandwich crispy, on good bread, without too much cheese, just like he says. It also helps to press the sandwich as you brown it. For extra crispiness, after you cut the sandwich into croutons, throw them back into the pan and let them crisp again on both sides. An added bonus? If you cut the croutons on the small side, you can share a sandwich without feeling deprived.

I’m still harvesting and enjoying tomatoes from my garden, but if you don’t have a plot of your own, local farmers markets and produce stands still have plenty of this season’s tomatoes for sale. Go get some before it’s too late.

Classic Tomato Soup

4 tablespoons (half a stick) butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons tomato paste

2 sprigs fresh thyme (I omit)

2 cans (14.5 ounces each) reduced-sodium chicken broth

2 cans (28-ounces each) whole, peeled tomatoes, in juice, with basil, if available, that you’ve broken up with your fingers (I use fresh tomatoes, pureed through a food mill so that skin and seeds are removed. No basil.)

In a 5-quart saucepan or Dutch oven, melt butter over medium heat; add oil and onion, season with salt and pepper. Cook until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in flour and tomato paste and cook 1 minute.

To saucepan, add thyme (if using), broth and tomatoes. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, 30 minutes.

If you used the thyme, remove the sprigs. Using an immersion blender, puree the soup in the pot, leaving a fair amount of the tomatoes in chunks. Or, working in several batches, puree half the soup (about 5 cups) in a conventional blender until smooth; return to pot. (If using tomato puree, you may skip this step and enjoy the pieces of onion, or you may blend the soup smooth.) Season with salt and pepper.

Serve immediately, perhaps with Mark Bittman's grilled cheese croutons. For the croutons, Bittman says, “Make a crisp grilled cheese sandwich, with good bread and not too much good cheese. Let it cool, then cut into croutons.”

Enjoy!

Original recipes from Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food magazine, and Mark Bittman’s “Simple Cooking” column in the New York Times.

Jill Blanchette works at night at The Day. Share comments or recipes with her at j.blanchette@theday.com.

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