Saturday, April 16, 2011

Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Soup

This versatile soup will be welcome as a first course to an elegant dinner or the main course on a blustery afternoon.  Its beauty is that it may be prepared a day or several ahead and will be as good as the day it was made.

While you can get good boxed soups, I doubt you'll fine one that has as good a flavor as this soup.   If you've only ever had Campbell's tomato soup, you really haven't lived. This soup, even when it is just tomato, has a much stronger and more complex flavor than its canned condensed cousin. When you add in the red peppers, it just gets better!
Another nice thing about this soup is you don't have to use fresh tomatoes, although they are preferred if you have access.  I purchase good quality Roma plum tomatoes. Plum tomatoes are meatier, less juicy and have fewer seeds than other varieties.  The Roma variety have a particularly good flavor for sauces and soups.  My Italian grocer usually has them year around and they always work well in this soup.  But if you can't get fresh tomatoes, you can substitute canned plum tomatoes and get equally good results.

Oven Roasted Peppers                   Cooled and Peeled
As you'll see in the recipe (below), I saute the tomatoes with onions and celery.  The roasted sweet red peppers are optional, but if using them I roast them in the oven then peel off the blackened skins.  Once you have the cooked ingredients, you must strain them to separate the solids from the liquids and for this you will want to have considered your options well in advance.

Strainer Options
As I have the full attachment set for my KitchenAid mixer, my preference is for its strainer attachment (top photo).  While I've used the other devices, I think the KitchenAid does the best job of extracting all of the flavorful liquids for my soup and separating all of the nearly dry solids to a separate bowl.  The sauce maker (second image) uses the same mechanical technique as does the KitchenAid attachment and provides similar results while being powered by hand.  The food mill (shown third) has larger wholes and doesn't produce the very smooth quality I'm looking for in a soup or sauce, but it would do in a pinch. My food mill only has two plates, neither of which has as small of holes as the strainers above.  My mother regularly used the funnel strainer (bottom).   For this, it's best if your arms are in good shape and you have plenty of patients as I find the device challenging to use.  While it requires plenty of muscle, the necessary force and turning action you apply with the wood auger tends to make it tip over.  If you are doing lots of tomatoes, you may be required to stop and periodically remove the solids.  If you manage all of this however, it will provide a well strained tomato base.

So why not roast the tomatoes as well?  I have tried this and I know cooks that recommend it, as it can bring out the flavor in poor quality tomatoes.  But I prefer cooking the tomatoes with onion and celery and this is not possible in the oven.  One friend gave me a recipe which included roasting the tomatoes just like the peppers, but then transferring to a sauce pan with the onion and celery afterwards.  However the short cooking time suggested didn't really permit the flavors to blend.  She also skips the step of straining and so removes the tomato skins and seeds before putting them in the pot with the onion and celery.  After a short cooking time, she uses a food processor to puree the ingredients.  This method does perhaps save steps but didn't provide me with the smooth soup result I was accustomed to.

My recipe shown below came from a friend's mother, which I've modified somewhat over time.  I've also provided a "Cream of" option below the main recipe, although I think you'll find it wonderful as listed and without the issues (and calories) the cream brings with it.

Ingredients: (serves 4-6)
8 medium Roma plum tomatoes (or about 4 cups canned)
2 stalks of celery
1 small Spanish onion
3 teaspoons sugar
3 medium sweet red peppers (optional)
4 cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth if you have vegans in the house)
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 tablespoons sour cream
6 parsley or cilantro sprigs

Roasting the Peppers
This is an optional step.  Without the peppers you have tomato soup.  Start by washing the peppers and removing the stickers.  Preheat to 450F.  Arrange the peppers on a cookie sheet turning every 15 minutes until somewhat blackened (about 30 minutes). Remove to a covered bowl or brown paper bag. As the steam from the peppers condenses, the skin becomes easier to peel off.  No need to remove seeds, as the strainer will take care of that.

Preparing the Tomatoes
Roughly chop the onion and celery, sprinkle with a pinch of salt, and saute in olive oil for five minutes in medium heat in a large pot.  Cut the tomatoes into quarters and add to the pot and stir.  Let cook for another five minutes.  Stir in the sugar, then cover with the broth and let simmer for thirty minutes, stirring ocassionally. (add water or more broth if needed to cover the ingredients.)   Remove from heat and let cool until safe to handle.  Add the peeled red peppers if you are including them.  Stir in and then ladel the ingredients into your strainer, bit by bit, and strain all of the mixture, separating the solids from the sauce.  If the tomato puree is too thick you may dilute with some additional broth.  Refrigerate until ready for use and warm to serve.  Add salt just before serving, to taste. Place in bowls and add a small dollop of sour cream to each, and garnish with some croutons, crushed black pepper and a spring of parsley or cilantro.

Cream Soup Option
If you'd like a cream soup, do the following.  Over medium heat, melt four tablespoons of butter in a large heavy pan and stir in four tablespoons of flour.  Whisk in two cups of cream or milk until the mixture begins to thicken.  Continue to whisk until the mixture is hot but not boiling.  While whisking rapidly, pour the strained warm tomato mixture into the cream sauce.

How to Avoid Curdling
Acid can cause cream or milk to curdle.  The tendency to curdle increases as the ratio of acid to cream, the temperature of the mixture, or the salt quantity increases. To ensure a smooth, non-curdled cream soup, follow the recipe above which separates the cooking of the tomatoes from the cream. It is also important to use the freshest cream possible. The more cream ages, the more susceptible it becomes to curdling because its lactic acid content increases.  Where indicated, slowly add the acidic tomato liquid to the hot cream, being certain not to do this the other way around. Also ensure the cream sauce and tomato mixture are not hotter than 180F when blended and that you immediately remove the mixture from the heat once they are.  Add the salt just before serving after the soup is removed from the heat.  Should you still end up with curdled soup, you can try smoothing it with an electric stick blender or run the soup through a sive.  While the soup will be edible curdled, it will have a texture your dinner guests are not expecting.


  1. That sounds so good! Maybe I'll give it a try. I remember sometimes at Christmas my Dad would make similar sounding soups, one tomato and one roasted green pepper, then served them 1/2 and 1/2 in a bowl. Pretty and tasty!

  2. Diane, thanks for the comment. I haven't done the split bowl of two soups in years. Thanks for the reminder. Maybe I'll do it again this holiday season. I have a good recipe for a spinach soup that would go well with the tomato/red pepper soup.