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Karen Babine teaches composition at Bowling Green State University. Her essays have most recently appeared in Weber: The Contemporary West, River Teeth, Ascent, Fugue, and are forthcoming in North Dakota Quarterly.
For the Love of Summer Tomatoes
There’s an old joke in Minnesota about winter: it keeps the riffraff out. I love everything about winter: I love snow, I love cold (which is a completely different thing from being cold), I love sweaters and bundling up, I love SmartWool and Thinsulate, mugs of tea and hot chocolate. I like when the temperature gets to -40 and you can throw a cup of boiling water into the air and watch it poof and disappear before it hits the ground. I like the idea of winter too, things I can’t do because I’m gravitationally challenged: cross-country skiing (downhill skiing here is rare), snowmobiling, skating. And there’s a small window of temperature, scarcely above zero, when there’s nothing more wonderful in the world than standing outside and just breathing. Today, in Ohio, we’ve got snow. Lovely thick flakes that make me want to be outside and make snow angels. Of course, I’m to an age where any weather change makes my joints ache and if I got down to make an angel, I might not get back up. So I do the next best thing: I decide to christen the only thing I asked for Christmas, a Cuisinart immersion blender.
I also love everything about tomatoes. Fresh from the garden, sliced, sprinkled with salt and eaten before they lose the sun warmth. Tomatoes and basil and olive oil on crusty bread. Tomato soup, pasta and tomatoes, spaghetti and meatballs, tomato juice. In the last few days, I’ve used both tomatoes I canned and tomatoes I roasted and froze this fall and made two kinds of tomato soup (stay tuned for that), meatballs to make spaghetti and meatballs (with tomato sauce) to freeze for dinners. Part of my history as a farmer’s granddaughter is preserving food, so I’ve been canning tomatoes and applesauce for the last couple of years, nowhere near the amount of food my mother preserved when I was a kid. I need at least a bushel of tomatoes to get myself through the winter, I’ve learned. There’s just something about pulling summer foods out of the freezer or off the shelf to use in the dead of winter to save one’s sanity.
I’d been wanting my mother’s cream of tomato soup recipe for months before she sent it to me and the recipe she sent me had where she’d gotten it written at the top: “Laporte Home Ec, October 1984” and that brought back all those fuzzy pre-age-five memories that never get any clearer, winter memories of playing in the snow that was taller than I was. It was one of those winter soups that always made things a little bit warmer, simply because of the summer ingredients that we’d gardened and carefully preserved for an occasion just like this.
Mom’s original recipe (Laporte Home Ec, 1984):
1-22 oz can stewed tomatoes (Mom’s notes: “or 1 quart, home-canned”)
4 sprigs parsley
1 sm. onion, quartered
1 stalk celery
3 T flour
2 t brown sugar
1 t salt
½ t basil
1/8 t pepper
2 T butter
2 c. milk (Mom’s notes: “I used powdered milk, because it was what was on hand and it didn’t use up our ‘drinking milk.’”)
1. In blender, place tomatoes, parsley, onion, celery, flour, brown sugar, salt, basil, and pepper. Cover. Liquefy 3 seconds.
2. In a Dutch oven, slowly melt butter and gradually stir in tomato mixture. Cook till it comes to a boil and add milk. Heat gently.
My variation of Mom’s recipe:
1 qt home-canned tomatoes
8-10 roasted Roma tomatoes (mine were roasted with olive oil, basil, salt and pepper)
1 med onion, diced
1 stalk celery
1 clove garlic
3 T flour
2 t brown sugar
basil, rosemary, any herbs you like
4 t red wine vinegar
Summer came back in a rush as I pulled a quart of tomatoes I’d canned months ago off the pantry shelf in the back of my house. I hadn’t had a garden, but these had come from the Toledo Farmer’s Market, which was the next best thing. And I pulled a plastic bag of frozen roasted tomatoes out of the freezer as well. I took my onion and celery, diced them up, and tossed them into my Dutch oven with some olive oil to sweat. When they were soft and translucent, I added the garlic and put the roasted tomatoes in the pot. Then the quart of tomatoes, the flour, the brown sugar, the herbs, and the milk went into the pot. Feeling a little bit like a mad scientist, I took my new blender in hand and blended it smooth. To wake up the flavors a little bit, I added the red wine vinegar and the Tabasco. The Tabasco isn’t enough to make it spicy (at least not in the amount I used), but just enough to get your taste buds moving. As for any of the seasonings, it’s all to taste—add more or less, depending on what you like. I could have made a grilled cheese sandwich to go with it, but I didn’t want to spoil the mix of soup and snow and memory. When everything was right, I spooned the soup into a mug and curled up on the couch with it, watching the snow fall outside my window.
(If you want another awesome—awesome in a different way—tomato soup, check out Jamie Oliver’s Tomato Pappa, recipe here.I substituted my frozen oven roasted tomatoes for his fresh ones, added more garlic than he called for, used dried basil instead of fresh, used a quart of home canned tomatoes from this summer (and the corresponding equal in water), and used rosemary garlic bread instead of ciabatta. You can blend it up if you like, but I like it chunky.)