Welcome back to yet another installment in my special series on how to make a delicious Big Holiday Dinner even if you’ve never made one before. Today’s post will show you how to make soup, or specifically, a lovely tomato basil soup, for your first course. Earlier posts include getting organized, plus a checklist, tools and decorations, the gravy tutorial, and how to roast the turkey.
Why, when there’s already a ton of food to eat, make soup for a big holiday meal? Well, okay, part of it is that my family always did for our special dinners. Also, it helps with timing your dinner. You can serve it as fast or as slowly as your bird or roast is cooking and finishing. Or simply skip it if everything’s cooking too fast. Ideally, the meat is getting its final blast of heat while you’re serving the soup. But we know how often that happens.
The other great thing about soup is that you can make it way ahead of time. Just heat it up again on the big day. This soup, Tomato Basil, has lots of advantages. It’s insanely easy, relatively cheap, very easy to double or triple (just buy more cans of tomatoes) and tastes even better re-heated. It’s also light enough that your guests won’t fill up and not eat anything else.
I got the official recipe from the chef at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel (which is now the Langham Huntington Hotel). Okay. I adapted it to my needs. A household fave, we usually serve it with grilled cheese sandwiches or toasted cheese bread. You can either use a regular blender, a food processor or an immersion blender to puree it. Or don’t puree it. It’s still perfectly lovely. It serves six to eight people, depending on how generous you are and since it’s a first course, you don’t have to be.
What You Need
You’ll need some cooking oil, an onion, a few cloves of garlic, a 28-ounce can of tomatoes (diced is good, but whole are fine, too), water, salt and pepper, and some basil, either fresh or dried. I also like to add a generous splash of vodka – it really punches up the tomato flavor.
Cut your onion in half, lengthwise, pull back the papery peeling. Then slice each half, discarding the stem and root ends. The slices get tossed in your pot with just enough cooking oil (corn or canola) to cover the bottom of the pan.
You’re going to cook this over medium heat until the onions are almost translucent and maybe even a little browned on the edges. While that’s happening, peel and slice your garlic cloves. And you can use as many as you like. If you’re a total garlic freak, use the entire head. If you hate garlic, use less or leave it out. I stick to three to four medium cloves.
Get your can of tomatoes open and if you’re using the vodka, get that open, too. Once the garlic goes in, you have to move a little quickly to keep it from burning. Burnt garlic tastes seriously nasty. So pop the garlic in the pot with the onions, stir just until you can smell it, then add the vodka (about a shot’s worth or a couple, three tablespoons). Stir that, then toss in the can of tomatoes and stir that.
Seasoning the soup
If you’re using dried basil, add about a tablespoon now, along with salt and pepper. Fill the can with water, and add that. If it looks like there’s not enough, i.e. you can see too many tomatoes and not enough soup, then fill the can again and pour just enough to cover everything and a bit more. This last bit means you’ve also rinsed the can and can throw it directly into your recycling bin, saving you a step.
Give your soup a quick taste. It will mostly taste like tomatoes. But if you think it could use some more salt, go ahead and add a little extra. Cover the pot and bring the soup to a boil by turning the heat all the way up. You can wander away for a couple minutes. Just be careful, because once the soup is boiling, you want to turn the heat down to simmer. Let it go for 20 minutes or so.
Now comes the fun part. Add your basil leaves (if you’re using the fresh ones), plug in your immersion blender and turn the heat off. It’s probably smart to take the pot off the stove, but I’ve been doing this so long, I, uh, forgot.
You can also do this in your traditional blender or food processor, which makes one heck of a mess. It’s why I love my immersion blender. Anyway, you want it relatively smooth. It won’t be perfectly smooth. It doesn’t need to be.
Taste it again to see if it needs any more salt or pepper and you are good to go. You can either put it in jars or another container and put it back in the pot to reheat. Or just hold it at a simmer for serving the day of. It’s easier to make it ahead, but harder to find room in the fridge. Your call.