Just under the wire: your October soup! I debated between this and tortilla soup for several weeks, then it was too hot to think even remotely about soup, and when I came out on the other end, almost time for Halloween and without a single container of chicken stock in my freezer nor an ounce of impetus to make any, all I could think about was a tomato bisque with a swirl of pesto I had at a surprise Friday lunch date with N. last month at a little bistro we like, and the decision was made. Bisque is traditionally a soup made with seafood stock to which cream is added – lobster bisque is of course the poster child. However, it has evolved, as food so often does, and now seems to just indicate a soup that has been blended to smooth consistency and finished with cream. Tomato seemed like a good way of making it a vegetarian option, and I have a soft spot for tomato soup. For extra interest, I wanted to add roasted red pepper to mine, to evoke that dry, smokiness fall can sometimes carry with it. As for the tomatoes, I dithered: did it make sense to look for lingering heirlooms at my Farmers’ Market, or settle for grocery story options, and should I peel or not peel? And would it be cheating if I just grabbed a jar of fire-roasted and called it a day?
Then my friend S. sent me Deb’s new book, and of course she already had the answer, which she says came from Cook’s Illustrated: gently split and drain the canned tomatoes, and roast them until dried and lightly colored. This concentrates their flavor, saves you the headache of deciding on perfect tomatoes, makes this an any-time-of-year option, and gives you time to prep the rest of the ingredients while the tomatoes are in the oven. Yes, it probably makes the soup take a little longer to come together, and yes, if you don’t line your baking sheet with aluminum foil first you’ll be every so sorry, but the flavor difference is noticeable, so I think it’s worth doing. The roasted flavor is evened and enriched by the cream we add at the end, and I think it also combats that too-acidic bite tomatoes sometimes have. But if you find yours are still a touch sour at the end, add a quick squeeze of honey.
A tomato soup is a comforting standard, but the trick – and treat – of this one is the herb puree I made to imitate that pesto from the bistro. A quick whizz of basil along with whatever other soft stemmed herbs you like – parsley, dill, I threw in some sage, but it’s such powerful stuff you really only need a few leaves of it – a clove of garlic, some lemon juice if you dig that sourness, and enough olive oil to bring it all together.
The herb puree can be dolloped on or mixed in, but I wanted to be fancy, so I carefully dribbled a swirl through the center of my bowl. And then, because imagining a bowl of tomato-based soup without melted cheese on toasted bread is impossible for me, I broiled some sharp cheddar onto a few leftover slices of baguette and settled in for dinner.
*This recipe includes charring a fresh pepper and roasting a can of tomatoes, but you can also make it easy on yourself and sub in roasted red peppers and fire-roasted tomatoes, and I bet your results will be similar, and cut down about half an hour of the time it takes to make this. If you try that way, let me know how it turned out.
Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Bisque with herb puree and cheese toasts
About an hour, if your tomatoes and peppers are not pre-roasted. About half an hour if they are.
Serves 4 as a light dinner
1 large red bell pepper (or 1 jar roasted red peppers, drained)
1 tablespoon olive oil
28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, plain or fire roasted
½ cup diced onion
2-3 cloves garlic, smashed, skins removed
2 tablespoons butter
2-2½ cups vegetable or chicken stock (you may not use it all)
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon fresh oregano (1-2 sprigs)
salt and pepper to taste
½-1 cup heavy cream
1-2 teaspoons honey, optional
For herb puree:
½ cup basil leaves
¼ cup other mixed herbs – I used parsley, chives, and just a few sage leaves
1 clove garlic
lemon juice to taste
¼-½ cup olive oil
For cheese toasts:
Per slice of baguette or half-slice of sandwich bread:
½ teaspoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons finely grated sharp cheddar cheese
- If you are using plain tomatoes, preheat the oven to 450F. If you are using fire-roasted tomatoes, no need. For both, open the tomato can and dump into a fine mesh strainer positioned over a bowl or a large glass measuring cup to collect the juices. As they drain, use your fingers to gently tear the tomatoes and extract some of the juice and seeds inside.
- If you are using jarred roasted red peppers, skip this step. If you are using a fresh red bell pepper, while the oven is warming, char the red bell pepper over a gas burner turned on high. Let the skin blacken, adjusting the placement of the pepper with a pair of metal tongs to allow for maximum char. As each lobe blackens, turn to a new side, repeating until the skin is well charred and the flesh of the pepper is starting to soften, around 15 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap for another 15 minutes.
- If you are using plain tomatoes, when the oven has preheated, cover a baking tray or roasting pan with aluminum foil, drizzle on the 1 tablespoon olive oil, and add the juiced, seeded tomatoes. Transfer to the oven and roast 25-30 minutes, until the tomatoes have dried out and are starting to take on a little color.
- While the tomatoes roast and the pepper steams, turn your attention to the soup base. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat, then add the diced onions and the smashed garlic. Reduce the heat to medium-low, then sweat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are translucent and smell sweet, 8-10 minutes.
- After the pepper has steamed for about 15 minutes, strip off the plastic wrap and use a knife to cut a slit into the pepper (be careful – hot steam will be released). When it is cool enough to handle, wrap it in a dry paper towel and rub to remove the majority of the skin – it should slide off relatively easily. Don’t worry if a few charred pieces stay on. Split the pepper in half, remove the stem and seeds, then roughly chop the flesh.
- Add the chopped pepper and the roasted tomatoes to the pot with the onions and garlic (or add the drained fire-roasted tomatoes and jarred roasted red peppers). Add enough vegetable or chicken stock to the reserved tomato juices to make 2½ cups of liquid. Add to the pot along with the bay leaf and oregano. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer 20-25 minutes with a slightly vented lid.
- While the soup is simmering, you can make the herb puree. In a food processor or blender, combine the basil, other mixed herbs, a few tablespoons lemon juice, and about ½ teaspoon of salt. Buzz to combine. While the processor is running, stream in about ¼ cup olive oil. Stop the processor, scrape down the sides, and assess. You want a reasonably smooth, well-seasoned puree. If needed, add salt, pepper if you wish, and lemon juice. If the herb pieces still seem dry and not well integrated, run the processor again and stream in some more olive oil, until the mixture comes together into a puree. Scrape into a small bowl and rinse out the processor or blender.
- After 20-25 minutes of simmering, remove the bay leaf and the stems of oregano, if you used full sprigs, and carefully transfer the soup into the rinsed out food processor or blender. Carefully, since hot liquids can “explode” when blended from the trapped steam, cover the lid with a towel and turn on the processor or blender to low speed. I like to leave the feed tube lid/pusher out of my food processor when I do this, to let steam escape. As the soup blends, turn the machine up to high speed and run until the mixture is very smooth.
- Once you’ve achieved the consistency you want, return the soup to the pot, add the cream, and season to taste. If it seems a little too acidic, add a little more cream and/or the 1-2 teapoons honey. Warm through over medium-low heat.
- While the soup warms, it’s a good time to make the cheese toasts. Spread each slice of baguette or half-slice of sandwich bread with a thin layer of mayonnaise, sprinkle on the 2 tablespoons finely grated cheese, and place under a broiler or toaster oven heated to 400F until the cheese bubbles and browns.
- To serve, ladle the soup into a large bowl. Carefully spoon on the herb puree in a swirl (or whatever pattern you want, or just a dollop). Dunk in a cheese toast, or serve it on the side, while still warm.