pleasant thoughts tomato soup

I posted on cold soup once before, and it was a hit. It even got me a link on Wikipedia. (Applause may now commence.) I tried another one last night from my latest Bon Appetit, titled unassumingly “Summer Tomato and Bell Pepper Soup,” and with one spoonful fell instantly in love.

Never one to order soups that prance about menus with names like gazpacho and vichyssoise, I approached this cold soup with some reluctance. The recipe began, however, with the promise that “ripe summer tomatoes are perfect just as they are…” and I was lured deeper. Summer tomatoes simply make me weak.

The day had been another scorcher. Some new friends were coming over for dinner, and I was determined to use as little heat as possible for its preparation. I still had to visit three different locations to procure the appropriate ice cream, roasted red peppers, and good bread, but managed to keep my cool. The dessert was baked early in the morning, and the main course quickly seared and delivered to plates without too much of a sweat.

All the other accoutrements were served in the cool-as-a-cucumber-style of this fresh first course.

This soup’s preparation is as simple as a sandwich. “But I’m not a cook,” you might say. Well, this here concoction involves none of that intimidating heating-of-ingredients business. Like all simple dishes, the result rests only on the quality of your ingredients, not your skill.

Finding those really special tomatoes was, I have to admit, a bit of a chore. I tasted local tomatoes at the co-op, and smelled red globes at two major grocery chains: Disapointment lurked in every overflowing bin. The mushy, bland, and boring specimens reminded me that my dear tomatoes just haven’t yet hit their peak. But I wasn’t willing to give up yet. A stop at a friend’s garden led me to lush green plants bearing their tiny, heavy treasure.

In all shades of fire the tomatoes fell into my hands and into my soup. Yes, I still had to use some less-than-perfect “over the counter” tomatoes to plump it up a bit, but I believe it was these little explosions of sweetness that truly saved the day.

Just when I thought I’d have to kiss my soup craving goodbye until November, this one snuck up and told the humidity where to go. I instantly fell under its spell of fresh-picked tomato goodness, because, as American humorist Lewis Grizzard wrote, “It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.” Mr. Gizzard, I couldn’t agree more.

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a few small threads

It may not feel much like spring, but eating flowers might be a provisional substitute for smelling them. It will do, for awhile. This flower, or rather its papery crimson stigmas, has been sitting in my cupboard for almost a year now, summoning me to release its captive aromas.

It is the rare and venerable saffron of which I speak. An exquisite and expensive spice that, were it not for a trip to India, might have never wound up in my hands, let alone my dinner.

Finally it was time. I reached behind the basil, cayenne and turmeric into the shadows of my spice shelf where the clear case sat, modest as a box of matches. Almost one year ago now I carried that tiny treasure chest all the way home from a spice stall in a Jodhpur market. The experts say I should’ve used it by now, but sometimes I forget what good things I have and how to best appreciate them.

I knew I had tasted saffron before, but could not recall its particular feel on my tongue or the way it whirled madly between nostrils and tastebuds. I wanted to use it right, and I was afraid. The delicately canvas of rice, or something more complex? Would sweet or savoury best highlight its essence? Would meat overpower? Which vegetable would be most companionable?

And then I stopped worrying and remembered that when a dish is born out of a desire to celebrate and create, it matters not that it’s perfect but that it brims with pleasure. As I tossed a pinch of this valuable spice into a pan of humble chickpeas and tomatoes simmering gaily on the stove, it just seemed right. The noble saffron threads kissed the peasant stew, and I bent over the aroma expectantly. My Kashmiri saffron would taste just fine, while reminding me of the rare things in this world: from love and camaraderie to being able to taste the threads from a crocus that grow only three per flower.

 

Served with basmati rice, it may not have been authentically Spanish, but with some crab cakes leftover from a great party on the weekend, it made a simple and nourishing meal. In the future I might crown it with some grilled prawns or scallops. With my last bite came a wave of anticipation for weaving those frail red threads again and again.

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