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On stewing, and soup

I haven’t been cooking much lately, and it’s got me feeling sort of sad. That Brandon, I tell you, has some kind of nerve. He’s been doing the cooking, nearly every night. I think I might be too lucky for my own good.

Now, hear me out. Before you rush to call me an ingrate, I should clarify: it is, of course, awfully nice to be betrothed to a man who not only can cook, but does. He makes a mouthwatering chana masala, any number of chutneys and spicy salsas, a golden fennel soup worthy of loud slurping, spicy soba noodles with lots of cilantro and radishes, sourdough pancakes, salads with delicious this and delicious that, and dressings to go with. Heck, he’s even started putting poached eggs on everything, and you know that makes me weak in the knees. Let’s not be silly: suffer, I do not. I love Brandon, and I love that Brandon cooks. But so much loving makes a girl very lazy, and rather lax when it comes to cooking.

For some people, this might not be a problem at all. For some, it might be close to paradise. And it is, sometimes — especially at the end of a long workday, and when I’m up to my ears, as I have been lately, in a side project that (dear sweet god permitting) will see the light of day sometime soon. But in the Before Brandon Era (B.B.E., as the historians might call it), when I was the sole cook in the kitchen, I had to step up to the stove and make something happen, no matter how long or how bad my day, and strange though it may seem, I liked it. For most of my adult life, the kitchen has been my place to think and brainstorm and sort things out, a place that forces me to slow down and settle into my senses. There is nothing to match the active meditation of moving a knife down the length of a carrot, or through a pile of coarse greens. Cooking is a way to make sense of my days, and to make something beautiful of them. We all find ways to do this, I think, whether we are conscious of it or not. For me, writing is another way, but it’s not the same. Cooking makes me generous. It makes me someone I want to spend time with. I didn’t know any of this, of course, until a certain curly-haired man came along and, ever so sweetly and with the best of intentions, started doing the cooking for me.

So I’ve been a little out of sorts, not knowing quite what to do with myself. But one night last week, I decided to make something of it — a soup, more precisely. I wanted something slow and quiet, sans sautéing and other jumpy methods, something that would make the kitchen warm and sweet-smelling, and me along with it. A riff on a recipe from September’s Gourmet sounded like just the thing: a fragrant soup made from the season’s last tomatoes, a pinch of summer-colored saffron, fresh herbs and fennel seeds, and, with a nod toward cold weather, a bit of orange zest.

I shooed Brandon away with a wooden spoon, and then, in the silent kitchen, sank my fingers into a bowlful of blanched tomatoes and coaxed from them all that early fall has to offer. Subtle, softly acidic, and laced with saffron, it was much tastier than stewing in my own juices. We scraped our bowls and looked at each other, and Brandon went back for a second helping.

Provençal Tomato Soup with Orange, Saffron, and Tiny Pasta
Adapted from Gourmet, September 2006

This business of blanching, peeling, and seeding the tomatoes may be a little fussy, yes, but it makes for a lovely, soft tomato flavor. Plus, there’s nothing quite so satisfying for the fingers as slipping the skins from a few tomatoes, or scooping out their seeds and juicy slop. And aside from that mild labor, this soup is pretty straightforward. With a stir every now and then, it mainly cooks itself. And it makes for easy eating on the front stoop — a table for two with a view! — on an early fall evening. With a hunk of bread and some cheese alongside, it’s dinner.

2 lb good-tasting tomatoes
2 medium onions, peeled, quartered lengthwise, and thinly sliced (~2 cups)
1 medium carrot, finely chopped or cut into very thin rounds
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 (3- by 1-inch) ribbon of fresh orange zest, minced
1 tsp finely chopped fresh thyme
Scant ¼ tsp dried hot red pepper flakes
¼ tsp fennel seeds
1 Turkish bay leaf
3 Tbs good-tasting olive oil
2 Tbs tomato paste
4 ¾ cups water
¾ tsp salt, or to taste
Pinch crumbled saffron threads
1 to 2 tsp granulated sugar
¼ cup small soup pasta, such as acini di pepe
2 Tbs finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
¼ cup finely chopped fresh basil

Bring a 5- to 6-quart saucepan of water to a boil. Cut a shallow X in the bottom of each tomato with a sharp knife, and blanch them, 2 or 3 at a time, in the boiling water for about 15 seconds, until the skin around the X starts to curl. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes to a bowl of ice water. When they are cool enough to handle, peel them, core them, and halve them crosswise. Set a sieve over a medium bowl, and squeeze the tomato halves gently over it, cut sides down, to extract the seeds and pulp. You may have to use your fingers to coax them out. Press on the seeds in the sieve to push through any juice; then discard them. Reserve the juice and the tomatoes.

Pour the water out of the saucepan, and wipe it dry. Pour in the oil, and warm it over medium heat. Add the onions, carrot, celery, garlic, orange zest, thyme, red pepper flakes, fennel seeds, and bay leaf. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are very soft but not brown, about 8-10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes with their reserved juice and the tomato paste, water, salt, saffron, and 1 tsp sugar. Simmer, uncovered, stirring and breaking up the tomatoes with a spoon occasionally, about 25-30 minutes. Add the pasta, stir to mix, and simmer, uncovered, until tender, about 5 minutes. Discard the bay leaf, and stir in the parsley and basil. Taste, and adjust sugar and salt as needed. Serve.

Yield: 4-6 servings, depending on what else you’re eating


Anonymous leslie said...

Welcome back to the kitchen, Molly! I trust you'll find your balance in this 'best of both worlds' situation...actually, it looks as though you already have. And just in time for 'soup season'!

10:22 PM, October 02, 2006  
Anonymous ann said...

oooooh, I made almost this exact soup last weekend, but with green and yellow tomatoes. I wondered what it would look like in red! The one I made was from an old cookbook and the rice was actually pureed into the soup to make a veloute... it was delicious and silky, but I adore the idea of wee bitty pastas floating about in the delicious lycopene-y broth!
As usual, wonderful Molly, thanks much and welcome back to the kitchen!

5:34 AM, October 03, 2006  
Blogger Lydia said...

Soup therapy....I know just what you mean. I love nothing better than pulling from the garden, the farmstand and the pantry and concocting a soup that will simmer and warm the kitchen. I'd add a bit of fennel bulb, if I happened to have one, along with the onions. Yum.

6:07 AM, October 03, 2006  
Blogger hannah said...

it seems as though you and brandon will have to work out a custody agreement with the kitchen, or at least visitations. glad you had some time to relax and step away from the key board. and soup! oh my, i saw soup season on the horizon and then it slipped away. this one is getting tucked into the recipe box for later i guess.

6:44 AM, October 03, 2006  
Blogger wheresmymind said...

Steph and myself have to negotiate 'cooking time' as we both love doing it and our kitchen is small. That doesn't mean we can't cook together, but some nights you want the space all to yourself

7:21 AM, October 03, 2006  
Blogger Lisa said...

Oh, my, does this look like the ticket for those tomatoes on my windowsill. And you make the whole process sound so soothing -- perhaps doctors should be prescribing soupmaking instead of Xanax! When I was a kid, my mom used to give me pastina (tiny star-shaped pasta) in broth when I was sick, speaking of things that are soothing. So the baby pasta in here is very appealing, too.

10:05 AM, October 03, 2006  
Blogger Shauna said...

Oh, my dear, as you know -- I am having the same qualms about not being in the kitchen. Trying being madly in love with a professional chef who wants to make food for you as an expression of his love. Who is going to turn that down?

Well, eventually, we all have to go back to the kitchen. In the past few days, I have made soups and lemon olive oil cookies and salad dressings and salads. It's a start, but it feels good.

Now you, my dear -- keep at it. That "side project" benefits from you cooking, my dear. All that creativity. Besides, I have eaten your food, and I cannot live without it. Keep at in the kitchen!

10:33 AM, October 03, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Molly, we (my husband, Steve, and I) have moved back to Seattle. We are thrilled to be back, but the move itself has been grueling. I've been living with friends, out of my packing boxes, for nearly a month. Needless to say, there are often -literally- too many cooks in the kitchen! This weekend, we get to move into our apartment, and this soup is on my list to commemorate the occasion. Keep an eye out, you might run into me at the farmer's market! : ) Aylin

1:04 PM, October 03, 2006  
Blogger Tokyoastrogirl said...

Hi Molly,

I was reading your post when two words stopped me in my tracks- sourdough pancakes. Dear sweet me, that is my husband's favorite food on the face of the earth. Could you (or Brandon) share (email me) the recipe? I hope it doesn't start with a starter that is 30 years old because I, unfortunately, have no such thing....although I've been meaning for ages to start one. Any recipe you have for the tangy pancakes would be grand, thank you!

1:44 PM, October 03, 2006  
Blogger emily said...

Beautiful description on what cooking means to you - and wonderful that you'll keep up with it.
The soup sounds fantastic, too.

4:49 PM, October 03, 2006  
Anonymous emily said...

The soup looks lovely and so does your new look blog. I am really looking forward to tomato season here, as soon as it arrives I will be making this soup.

5:18 PM, October 03, 2006  
Blogger lobstersquad said...

well, that Brandon sure sounds like Love´s dream come true! But I´d hate to be away from the kitchen too long, so I won´t complain about J. He´s become a demon shrimp peeler, and that´s not so bad.

11:54 PM, October 03, 2006  
Blogger lee said...

We're not picky. You could write about what Brandon cooks too!

7:25 AM, October 04, 2006  
Blogger Julie said...

My husband likes to cook for me, so I have to be conscious of actually letting him do it once in a while. And I love it when I relinquish control of the kitchen because there is nothing to critique or improve, it just tastes wonderful. We often cook together and he, like Ximena's husband is a champion shrimp peeler. I do feel the same as you however, that working in the kitchen at the end of the day does make it into something beautiful.

7:39 AM, October 04, 2006  
Blogger Lia said...

This sounds delicious and I love your descriptions as usual. Even though it might keep you out of the kitchen from time to time, isn't it wonderful to have a man who loves to cook? I feel equally as blessed too.

7:43 AM, October 04, 2006  
Anonymous ann said...

oh, and another thing, where did you get those awesome little bowls?
I have a gigantic one of those that my gran gave me for making batters and stuff
the more I look at these tiny ones, the more I realise, I'd really like to own two of them!

7:58 AM, October 04, 2006  
Blogger Shari said...

hello dear molly!

somehow, you always seem to know what i need. in this case, a delicious soup with bread and cheese (or a big hunk of cheese toast) on the front porch. sounds like a recipe for early fall delight. will report back to you with the results. xo shari

8:33 AM, October 04, 2006  
Blogger Ugly Gourmet said...

Hi Molly,

I don't know how to say what I want to say. The kitchen is the very soul of my family and the center of my marriage. Without cooking and sharing my food I would find little reason smile, laugh, love or apologize...

9:46 AM, October 04, 2006  
Blogger getzapped said...

I've been lookig for a good stew recipe and this looks awesome (and tasty too). And yes, great bowls!

9:50 AM, October 04, 2006  
Anonymous J. Bo said...

Hey, Miss Molly...

In case you missed it (and since you and Brandon are big on eggs, poached and otherwise), here's Mark Bittman's piece in today's NYTimes:


12:11 PM, October 04, 2006  
Anonymous jules said...

I know what you mean about needing to cook to make something beautiful of an otherwise ordinary day....love the new look

10:32 PM, October 04, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Thank you, Leslie! It did feel awfully good to step back into the kitchen and make this soup. I felt so wonderfully calm when we sat down to eat - sigh, the magic of soup.

Ann, how funny - this soup was supposed to have rice, just like yours, but I decided to use some little soup pastas from the pantry instead. It must be a Provençal thing, adding rice? Hmm. Your velouté de tomates sounds wonderful, with bacon and leeks and stock and wine! One to add to my list, no doubt...

Soup therapy is my favorite kind of therapy, Lydia! Well, except for chocolate therapy, and ice cream therapy, and gin-and-tonic therapy, you know. Your idea for adding fennel sounds wonderful - next time, I will.

Hannah, Brandon and I are luckily on the same wavelength about this: though both of us love, in theory, to cook with other people, we love even more to cook solo. So we do a little of both - we play sous chef to each other sometimes, and other times, we just stay out of the way. This is one of the many reasons why I love that guy: he just gets it.

Wheresmymind, you and Steph sound a lot like me and Brandon. Happy cooking to both of you, together and separately!

Lisa, you've got it - this soup is wonderfully soothing, from start to finish. Or, at least, I think so. Even the flavor is soothing somehow - it's mild for a tomato soup. At first, we thought it might be just so-so, but as soon as we sat down and started really tasting each mouthful, it was clearly a keeper. Very subtle, well balanced, and just wonderful.

Shauna, ma cherie, I was thinking of you when I wrote this, and of our conversation about this very thing. I love that we are going through so many of the same thoughts and processes and changes together, my friend. I feel like one heck of a lucky lady.

Aylin! So, so good to hear from you, and to hear that you and Steve are back in Seattle! When you get settled into your apartment, please drop me an e-mail and tell me more - what part of town are you in? Something tells me that you, me, Steve, and Brandon are going to have to meet up in the kitchen one night...

Tokyoastrogirl, I am sorry to report that Brandon's sourdough pancakes do start from a fairly old starter, but hey, you know, I'd be happy to send you some. It's easy. Let's talk.

Thank you, Emily.

And thank you, other Emily! I hope tomato season comes soon to wherever you are...

Lobstersquad, Brandon is pretty much my dream come true - no doubt about it! But, hmmm, I'll have to work on him about peeling shrimp. I'm not sure that he - being a sort-of vegetarian - is quite ready for it yet. BUT! He has recently declared that he wants to eat fish once a week, so things may change sooner than I think. He seared a mean filet of salmon last weekend...

Aw, Lee, thank you! I do sometimes write about things that Brandon has cooked, but with your blessing, I might do so more often.

Julie, it sounds as though you have a wonderful man there. I see from your blog that he is also quite good at picking the seeds from a pomegranate. You'd better keep him around!

Oh yes, Lia, absolutely - I love being with a man who can cook, and who can rattle on endlessly, like me, about meals and menus and plans for a dinner party that hasn't even been given a date yet! I love it. But I also have to remember to make time for myself, alone, in the kitchen. It's been hard to do lately because I am in the midst of a big project, but I'm slowly learning what I need, and how to shoo Brandon away so that I can get it!

Ann, if you'll believe it, Brandon bought this bowl at Goodwill while I was making this soup! We live about 7 blocks from an enormous Goodwill, and I call it his "home away from home." He has found us all sorts of amazing stuff - great old vintage Pyrex bowls like this one, a (new!) Calphalon 5-quart saute pan for $15, a 1950s kitchen table, a juicer...you name it. Goodbye, wedding registry; hello, Goodwill! For some things, at least.

Oh Shari, I'm so glad. I hope you and Tom like the soup as much as we do. And, hey, about that cheese toast - what kind of cheese do you like to use?

Ugly Gourmet, I hear you - the kitchen is, and has always been, the soul of my family. And I love that it will continue to be as I build a family with Brandon.

Thanks, getzapped!

J. Bo, you're wonderful! I had a busy morning, so I forgot to check the NY Times dining section - but then lo and behold, here you come with a spot-on link! Oh eggs, sweet, sweet eggs.

Thank you, Jules.

10:47 PM, October 04, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

G'day, Molly! This is simmering on the stove for me and my grandma as I check in here, and the aromas and warmth wafting up from the stove are almost unbearable today, when the weather's turned suddenly decidely autumnal. It's been a long time since I've commented here -- but rest assured that I've not stopped reading Orangette or following your dependable delicious suggestions. I hope I can send a longer email or letter at some point not too far to let you know some of the wonderful ways your words and recipes have accompanied me these many months past -- there are some great stories!

Until then, thanks for continuing to be so awesome and to bring me such joy here. Yum! And congrats on, among other things, the new look around here. I know what it's like to need to stir thngs up a bit.


12:13 PM, October 07, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Aw, Lisa, I'm always so happy to hear from you. You're just a joy - and I'm sorry for taking so long to reply and tell you so! I hope the soup hit the spot for you and your grandma...

5:16 PM, October 15, 2006  
Anonymous Melanie said...

Oh, my goodness! This is Friday soup! Our family has been making a version of this soup on Fridays for generations. It was fun to see it here! Your blog is lovely.

3:05 PM, July 07, 2008  
Blogger Rosiecat said...

The historian in me loves to read your older posts, Molly, and celebrate the great strides you've made with your then-"secret side project." And the cook in me loves to bookmark recipes such as this one for welcoming fall into my kitchen. Come September, let us hope that this soup will be bubbling away on my stovetop!

PS If you do a book tour, perhaps I might convince you to dine at my table with me? Am I being too forward? :-)

2:43 PM, August 22, 2008  
Blogger Molly said...

Thanks, Rosiecat! I had completely forgotten about this post - and my mention of the "side project." Ha! I'm so glad it's not a side project anymore. :)

I see that you're in the Chicago area, right? So far, it doesn't look as though my book tour - yep, I'm doing one! - will be taking me there, but if it does, I might just take you up on your offer...

10:23 PM, August 23, 2008  
Blogger Rosiecat said...

Yay for book tours! But oh, how sad for us Chicagoans that you aren't scheduled to visit our city. Ah, well, you are a busy lady, so I won't sulk for too long if the plan doesn't change...but I will add that Chicago is the biggest city in the Midwest, and it's a mighty fine food town. I also hear there are some excellent home cooks in the area ;-)

On a different note, I just wanted to tell you that upon your recommendation, I found Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird at the library, and it's great! Very few books actually make me laugh out loud, but this one does, over and over again. So thank you for sharing--you have great taste!

9:14 AM, August 25, 2008  

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