by Kay Baumhefner
To Celebrate the Season —
I love Pappa al Pomodoro. That barely cooked Italian tomato and bread soup best eaten al fresco at a relaxed picnic temperature, when summery days are too scorching to even consider eating anything hotter. Like today when I’m writing this. But once the nights turn cold and that last round of tomatoes hang heavy on vines growing gold with autumn light, my alliance drifts across the border to a French and personal family tradition aptly named “Grape Harvesters’ Soup”. It is, after all, that time of year, and whenever my winemaker husband starts crushing grapes, I am compelled to do the same with all those tomatoes. To create a warm and nourishing pot of tomato soup enriched and fortified with caramelized onions, melting cheese and crusty country French bread …
… Both body and soul crave additional sustenance after long days in the vineyard followed by chilly bone nights punching down grapes in cavernous damp fermentation rooms. So we all get wrapped up in this seasonal comforter, and you can too. Closely related to the classic French Onion Soup, this southwestern cousin probably knows as many variations as there are cooks making it. But all versions depend on the long, slow cooking of masses of onions that deepen with sweetness as the nights get longer. And while coating them in lard, goose or duck fat helps round out flavors when only using water to create the broth, I prefer a combination of extra-virgin olive oil and good butter along with the legendary healing properties in preferably homemade chicken stock.
Now when it comes to the bread, it’s typically been a stale crust, sometimes grilled, even brushed with oil and/or garlic, but mostly there for sopping up the broth. And as for the cheese, that’s just part of our own family tradition. But press those two together and you can imagine the expanded possibilities. [See recipe step #8 below.] Other compatible flavor embellishments could include adding fennel or peppers with the onions, and/or braising greens with the tomatoes. More for fun than necessity, because Grape Harvesters’ Soup is authentically perfect left pure and simple.
There’s so much to celebrate at the end of every growing season. And since this particular soup is made and served with toasts in honor of a successful grape harvest, we like to bless it with equal parts both old and new wine. Added to the cooking pot right before the tomatoes, so the years can blend and reduce to their present essence. To give thanks for the past and raise our glasses with hopes for the future. Now you can make this tradition yours too.
Casual Recipe for Grape Harvesters’ Soup
You’ll Need …
- olive oil and butter (or just lard, goose or duck fat) [several tablespoons]
- onions [4-6]
- a bay leaf
- thyme [small bundle fresh or teaspoon dried]
- salt and black pepper
- sugar [just a pinch]
- garlic [4-8 cloves]
- regular balsamic vinegar [several tablespoons]
- fruity, dry red or white wine [a cup or so]
- vine-ripened tomatoes [for 4-6 cups peeled and diced]
- chicken stock (preferably homemade) or water [8-10 cups]
- country French-style bread [a loaf]
- good melting cheese like Gruyere, Emmentaler, French Raclette or Italian Fontina [about a half pound]
- more olive oil or butter [several tablespoons]
and maybe …
- fennel [1-2 bulbs]
- sweet peppers [1-4]
- braising greens (like spinach or chard) [a bunch or two]
- fresh herbs for garnish (parsley, basil, fennel fronds, chives…)
To Make …
- In a covered, large heavy pot over low heat, cook the thinly sliced onions in olive oil and butter with bay and thyme for at least an hour until golden and melting tender. Stir and check several times.
- Uncover, raise the heat to medium, and cook until onions are a deep golden brown. [First add any sliced fennel and/or peeled peppers.]
- Season with salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar.
- Add the pounded or pressed garlic, balsamic vinegar and wine to reduce.
- Stir in the tomatoes to lightly brown. [Add any chopped or sliced hardy braising greens.]
- Boil and stir in the stock or water. Bring all to the boil, then reduce heat to simmer, covered, for about an hour.
- Taste for seasoning. [Add any tender baby spinach leaves.]
- EITHER grate the cheese to sprinkle on the soup and toast the bread to serve alongside -OR- make grilled cheese sandwiches to cut up into spoonable chunks for floating on top -OR- make a gratineed crouton crust on top of the whole pot (by toasting bread cubes in a moderate oven until dry, layering on top of the soup, topping with the grated cheese and then a drizzle of oil or melted butter before putting the whole thing back in a hot oven to bake about a half hour until golden brown and bubbling).
- Garnish with herbs and serve HOT.
and Play with …
Peeling Tomatoes and Peppers: You can either immerse the tomatoes for about 15 seconds in the boiling stock or water to loosen their skins or else remove the stems, stick a long-handled fork into the stem base and briefly rotate each tomato over a high flame until the skin splits open. Peppers can just be laid over a gas flame or under the broiler to rotate until evenly blistered.
No Vine-Ripened Tomatoes?: When the season is gone but you still want this satisfying soup, just substitute a 28-oz. can of best quality crushed or diced tomatoes. It won’t be the same, but it will still be delicious.
Bread: If available, use country French “levain” bread made with natural grape yeast starter for the complete experience.
Bon Appetit! — Kay
Originally published October 3, 2012 on Come Home to Cooking.