2008’s final challenge, Pappa al Pomidoro, was chosen by Natalie of Burned Bits, and is an easy and delicious tomato-basil soup thickened with hearty ciabatta bread. I am a total sucker for tomato soup (its almost embarassing but I even love Campbell’s tomato soup) and am always excited to try a new recipe. Its the sort of warm, satisfying meal that is ideal for chilly winter nights, and this one was no exception. What’s different about this tomato soup is that where I would normally want a grilled cheese sandwich or a small salad to go with, this soup was hearty and filling enough to make a perfect dinner without accompaniment.
I managed to stay pretty true to Ina’s recipe this time around, only really taking liberties with the garnishes, but I’ll get to that soon enough.
Making the soup really couldn’t be simpler. It begins with a flavor base of onions, garlic, carrots and fennel, which are sauteed in olive oil until softened and just beginning to take on some color. Then, the secret to this soup’s thick, velvety texture is added – cubes of fresh ciabatta bread. We found some roasted garlic ciabatta at the store, and the extra hit of sweet garlic flavor made the finished product even more complex.
After allowing the bread to cook and toast slightly in the oil, a big can of crushed Italian plum tomatoes (mine had garlic and basil added) gets poured into the pan, along with some good red wine, chicken stock, and fresh basil. Once combined, the soup now simply needs to simmer for 45 minutes until everything is soft and the flavors are melded.
While the soup cooks, there’s time to prepare some over-the-top garnishes. Ina instructs you to toss together more cubed ciabatta with cubes of pancetta, whole fresh basil leaves, and seasoned olive oil, then spread the mix on a baking sheet to toast in a high-temperature oven. I decided to get a little creative here, and instead of using diced, thick-cut pancetta, I bought some thin-sliced pancetta and roasted them flat on the baing sheet to create pancetta crisps. The fresh basil was cut into a chiffonade before being tossed with the bread and EVOO as directed, and 10 minutes in the oven yielded blackened basil strips clinging to crunchy, golden brown, aromatic croutons. I tasted one after they cooled a bit, and was hard pressed not to keep munching on them afterwards – they were the best croutons I’ve ever made.
Once the soup had cooked for a sufficient amount of time, I decided to go against Ina one more time and buzz everything up with my stick blender rather than leaving it rustic and chunky, because I just love a silky smooth soup. I guess I really just like the way all of the flavors combine when everything is blended together. Once blended I stirred in a handful of shredded asiago; Ina calls for parmesan, which I have no doubt is delicious (because when is parmesan cheese not delicious?) but we were buying asiago for other meals that week and decided it wasn’t worth buying a whole extra block of cheese. The sharp flavor of the asiago really worked well though with the other savory flavors in the soup.
To serve, we ladled the soup into bowls and topped with an extra sprinkle of asiago, a handful of basil croutons, and two pancetta crisps. And man oh man, was it GOOD. The soup was savory and ever so slightly sweet, velvety and hearty, with a bit of creaminess from the cheese (I think a drizzle of cream added at the end would really throw this over the moon) and really would have been great all on its own. But honestly its the garnishes that made it so special. The crunchy garlicky croutons and toasty basil and the pancetta crisps crumbled over the top before eating made for exciting textural contrast in every bite, with the occasional burst of porcine saltiness. Seriously, incredibly delicious.
And believe it or not, this soup tasted even better the next day as leftovers for lunch.
This just might become my go-to tomato soup recipe, especially for entertaining. Its so easy, yet the garnishes and smooth texture make it impressive enough to serve to guests. Its even festive for the season, all red and green!
I’m considering making a big batch of this soup and jarring it, so that I can have delicious tomato soup anytime I want. I could probably eat this stuff every day. Thanks, Natalie, for choosing this fantastic recipe!