On a visit to Budapest a few years ago I headed to its famous Central Market, a glorious Art Nouveau structure reminiscent of Barcelona’s Boqueria Market. I waded among stalls heaped with tomatoes, cabbages, and peppers in every size, and a seemingly endless variety of sausages, my appetite stoked by the aromas of paprika and smoky bacon. Heading toward one of the simple eateries, I was at a loss for what to order until I noticed that almost everyone was having tomato soup.
Once I tasted it, I was sure that the soup’s intense flavor had to come from fresh tomatoes. Then I saw the busy cook reach for a couple of giant cans of tomatoes and dump them into a huge pot sizzling with onions and garlic. I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to try to sneak Hungarian tomatoes into my suitcase to duplicate the soup at home. On my return to New York, I started my quest for the best canned tomatoes. Once I began cooking, I discovered that recreating this deeply flavored soup was as simple as starting with a sauté of aromatics and finishing with a purée in a blender to create the silky texture.
Using canned tomatoes takes the guesswork out of these soups. During the winter months, canned tomatoes taste infinitely better than any fresh ones you’ll find in the market. Even during tomato season, canned might be the best option for soup, as you might want to save vine-ripened red beauties for eating raw. Canned tomatoes can be fresh tasting and firm, but you must choose carefully; they vary widely by brand and come in many forms (see “Canned whole tomatoes,” below). At first, I tried puréed tomatoes because I was going for a creamy soup, but I found that most brands had a metallic taste. After some experimenting, I found that whole peeled tomatoes give these soups a flavor closest to that of fresh tomatoes.
Canned whole tomatoes
It’s a good idea to taste a few brands of canned tomatoes to find the one you like best. Seek out tomatoes that have a balance of fruity notes and acidity and that are not too salty or processed-tasting. To me, Muir Glen’s organic plum tomatoes most closely match the taste of fresh tomatoes.
Starting with a sauté of aromatics adds complexity to these simple soups. Cooking onion, garlic, pepper, or celery in a little oil until the flavors are released adds depth to the finished soup. You can change the flavor base by changing the vegetables you use. In my classic version, I call for just onion and garlic; adding celery and red bell pepper boosts the flavor more. And in my Southwest version, I roast the red bell pepper for an added sweetness.
Puréeing these soups elevates them into something special. Many traditional creamy soups are thickened with cream, but I’ve found that a blender creates a light-bodied yet velvety soup. When puréeing hot liquids, though, you do need to take care to prevent an overflow (see panel below).
Great served simply, these soups gain an added dimension when topped with a garnish. But these embellishments don’t have to be fancy or fussy. My bowl of soup at the Hungarian market needed nothing more than a dollop of sour cream. For a nice textural contrast, you can add a few homemade croutons or crunchy fried tortillas. In the summer, I like to finely dice fresh tomatoes and add a mince of fresh herbs. For garnishes with a few more ingredients, see individual recipes.
Purée with care
Be sure to purée in small batches and crack the blender lid slightly (or remove the center cap from the lid). Steam can build up once you start blending, and if the lid is on tight or the blender is overfilled, it will spray hot soup all over you and your kitchen. For protection, cover the top with a dishtowel while puréeing.