Fall is a lovely season. The weather becomes milder, the leaves change colors, and soup comes out to play. Personally, I never grew up eating tomato soup. When I was young, if we ever became sick my mother would simply order pizza and have us drink sprite. It was pretty great, and as a consequence I never developed a taste for tomato soup. I do not fondly remember my first foray into this dish. A friend’s mother made a pot of Campbell’s with some grilled cheese for us to dip into our soup. The grilled cheese was great, the soup not so much. In my opinion, it lacked any depth of flavor and simply didn’t wow me.
After I was married, I found out that most children did not have the same childhood experience as I. It seemed that most parents provided soup and sandwiches for their children when they were sick. Thus, after marriage I needed to learn how to make comfort food that did not come from a pizza box.
If properly prepared a tomato soup can be divine. With a little char, a kiss of smoke, and some love you will be amazed at the product. All you need is a little patience, a few key principles to build upon, and to desire to recapture your childhood adding a little twist.
Principles for success:
- A grill is an oven that imparts awesome flavor. Essentially, a charcoal grill is an oven that utilizes charcoal for fuel instead of gas or electricity. The charcoal and smoking wood imparts an amazing flavor that adds depth to any dish. If you want an stove-top function use direct heat (above the coals). If you want an oven function, best used for smoking, then use indirect heat (opposite the coals). Set up a two-zone fire by putting all your coals on one side of the grill and leave the other completely empty.
- Build flavor at every step. I fondly remember watching a video of Paul Prudhomme making Jambalaya. He encouraged everyone to add flavor at every step of the way. This principle was a game changer in the way I viewed food. Do not wait to season. If you do, then you miss the opportunity to have flavors mature all along the way. Honestly, it is the difference between two-dimensional and three-dimensional food. Mix up your own spice rub and add a little at every stage.
- Char and smoke are flavorslike salt and pepper. If you cook on a kettle grill you can benefit from both char on your veggies and smoke on your soup base. A kettle grill can come in much handier than a traditional smoker or gas grill. This is because you can easily set up indirect heat over real wood. If you start by adding a little char on the veggies and then smoke a soup base for an hour or two it will create a show stopping soup.
- You are making soup, follow the rules. Soup is soup. Do not try and make a stew. Start with a Mirepoix (Carrot, Celery, and Onion) or the Holy trinity (Onion, Celery, and bell pepper). A mirepoix is the base for cooking in French cuisine and the holy trinity is a modification on mirepoix used in creole cooking. Feel free to modify it and make it your own. For my version, I used onion, carrot, and Anaheim (New Mexico) chilis. Onion is a must. The carrots add sweetness to balance out the acidity in the tomatoes. The Anaheim chilis bring the heat.
- Think about building complexity at every stage in the cook. Many cooks think that flavor is the only thing that matters. However, all of us know someone who loves a taste but cannot handle the texture of food (often coconut). Taste is important! Texture is important! Presentation is important! If you nail all three of these layers, then you will crush whatever dish you are trying to make. Thus, adding some texture by mixing veggie puree with diced veggies can add complexity to your soup. Adding a visual contrast between the color of the tomatoes with the char on the veggies will make your dish even more impressive.
|Anaheim peppers||1/2 lb|
|Carrots||1lb (*whole not baby)|
|Chicken stock||1qt low sodium|
|Parmesan Cheese||¼ cup|
Begin by setting up a two-zone fire in your grill. If you are utilizing a charcoal grill, then you will have plenty of time to multitask as your chimney of charcoal gets hot. I suggest using lump charcoal for this cook instead of briquettes because it burns hotter. Hotter coals will help to char your veggies. While the charcoal heats up, prepare your vegetables.
The grill is heating, and it is time to get rolling on your veggies. Score the outside of the tomatoes by slicing an X onto the bottom of each tomato. Cut the onion in half and discard the “tunic” or outer layer. Take a bulb of garlic and slice off the top. Wrap the bulb in foil and pour about a tablespoon of olive oil over the exposed garlic. Then seal up the foil around the bulb. Rinse the carrots and the Anaheim peppers.
When the charcoal is ready pour it into one side of the grill. I usually place a base layer of unlit coals down then pour the prepared coals on top. The closer the lit coals to the grill grate the hotter the direct heat. Char the onion, carrots, tomatoes, and peppers. Take the onion, tomato, and carrots inside to rinse off under cold water. Rinsing in water will remove the overly charred bits, so you do not have anything too tough to chew. Take the peppers and throw them into a zip lock bag to steam. Put the garlic onto the grill over indirect heat and a Dutch oven over direct heat. Close the lid to begin roasting the garlic while preheating the Dutch oven.
It is time to put together a rub. I like to build something simple using Hungarian paprika, salt, black pepper, garlic powder, and a few other spices. Add a little of this rub at every step of cooking. By doing this, you will build layers of flavor because each step is being properly seasoned. There is no shame in using store bought rubs and mixes. Just remember that pre-made rubs tend to be very heavy on salt. Also, get one that matches the flavor profile of the dish you are preparing. I like to use a rub Weber makes that has lime in it for chicken, but for this soup lime would be super weird.
After you have rinsed the veggies, it’s time to prepare the soup base. Puree the tomatoes by using a food processor or immersion blender. Dice the carrots and onion into equally sized slices. The peppers will finish steaming after ten minutes. When they are done, slice the stem off and cut them vertically. Remove the seeds and charred flesh by scraping the back of a knife along each side. Puree the peppers and add them to the tomatoes. I like to puree the tomatoes, peppers, and garlic because no one wants a huge chunk of any of these ingredients in their soup. The garlic should be ready to remove after about 30-45 minutes on the grill. Peel back the foil and squeeze into the puree. You know it is done when you can easily squeeze it from the tunic.
The Dutch oven will be piping hot because it has been preheating over direct heat while the garlic is roasting. Add a little oil to the Dutch oven and throw in the onions and carrots. Soften the vegetables until the union is translucent and the carrots can be split with a wooden spoon. Think of it this way, they should be the consistency you want to eat them at. After you add the rest of the ingredients (tomato puree and stock) the vegetables will not get much softer. So, if you undercook them, they will be add a lot of crunch to the final dish. If you overcook them, then they will be mush. Add some rub to season the veggies and give it all a good stir.
The diced veggies are soft and seasoned, now it is time to add the tomato (pepper and garlic) puree. Pour it all into the Dutch oven over the veggies along with the stock. Give the entire soup a good stir and a fair amount of rub. Keep the Dutch oven over direct heat until it begins to boil. As soon as the soup is boiling, move it to indirect heat. Add a chunk of smoking wood to the coals. I prefer the fruit woods such as apple or cherry. They are mild and will not add to much smoke. You do not want a pungent soup so avoid hickory or mesquite. Keep the Dutch oven uncovered but add the grill lid so that the smoking process can begin.
While the soup is smoking, it is time to prepare your herbs. Herbs add great flavor, but they can be a pain to prepare. Sage is fairly easy, but thyme really annoys me. There is no substitute for fresh herbs though so take the time and do it right. After the herbs are prepared and the soup has been smoking for about 30 minutes add them and the Parmesan cheese to your soup. Fun fact, I am married to an Italian woman. When making Italian dishes she often uses parmesan or Romano cheese instead of salt. Both of these cheeses are very salty and make a great addition to under salted soups or sauces. I use low sodium broth because I like to add in the cheese as my salting agent. If you use full sodium broth, then I do not suggest the parmesan cheese or adding salt.
Let the soup go for at least another 30 minutes. The total smoke time should be no less than one hour. One hour will impart a good amount of smoke flavor without making the soup pungent. You can take it past one hour but keep tasting the soup to be sure it doesn’t get too much smoke.
After the soup is smoked, give it a final taste and season it to your liking. You may need to add more salt, pepper, or garlic to get the flavor just right. When it is perfect pull the soup and bring it inside. Add a dollop of sour cream or Greek yogurt to give it a little more body. Use fresh chopped parsley as a garnish. The soup does not need either of these things, it is good as is.
If you follow this recipe you should be left with a fantastic meal. The soup will have great texture because of the larger chunks of vegetables. Smoke, char, and your rub will leave you with a complex and satisfying flavor. The final touches in plating it up with a dollop of sour cream and fresh parsley will add great visuals. All in, this is a great fall soup to impress your friends.