Saturday 25 October 2008

Umami Tomato Soup: passion in a bowl

The deepest, cleanest fix I can get is from a bowl of hot tomato soup. Look, everyone has a crazy food-monkey, and my particular monkey has a wild craving for tomato soup. It started year or so ago, when I developed an insatiable taste for hot, spicy soup.

For a while, this instant curried soup, made in jiffy, with canned chickpeas, tomatoes, coconut milk, and so on, satisfied me. Then, when the tomato bug hit hard, I experimented with various tomato soups, including my grandmother's famous tomato soup, which was very good, but not quite intense enough. Several soups later, I came up with Roast Red Pepper and Tomato Soup, which seemed to hit the spot for a few months.

But, the nature of an addiction is that it is insatiable, and I needed a more intense taste, so I experimented once again, and came up with this soup, which has a deep, lip-smacking, cheek-slapping flavour.

I was inspired to hotfoot it into the kitchen for soup experimentation after I watched an episode of Heston Blumenthal's cookery programme In Search of Perfection. Blumenthal, a culinary genius and ground-breaker in the field of taste and flavour, recently discovered - and scientifically proved - that the pulp and seeds of tomatoes are a rich source of the elusive umami flavour, also known as the 'fifth flavour'. More about umami here.

So that's why I've called this soup Umami Soup. This is quite a rough, textured soup: if you are looking for posh haute soup, you will need to peel the tomatoes before you add them to the pot, and sieve the soup after liquidising it. I can't be bothered and, besides, I like tomato skin. This soup feeds eight to ten, but is easily halved.

Umami Tomato Soup

4 T [60 ml] olive oil
2 large, ripe red peppers [bell peppers or capsicums], seeded and roughly chopped
2 kg very ripe, sweet red tomatoes, roughly chopped, skins, pips and all
2 tins canned Italian tomatoes
2 T [30 ml] concentrated tomato paste
4 fat cloves of fresh garlic, skinned and chopped
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda*
a pinch of good-quality mixed dried herbs [for example, Herbs de Provence. Don't use fresh herbs, which will distract from the tomato taste]
1 t [5 ml] Tabasco sauce
1 t [5 ml] sugar
enough fresh chicken or vegetable stock to cover the tomatoes [if you don't have stock, use a good stock cube]
salt and freshly ground black pepper
300 ml thin cream

Turn your hot plate or gas ring on to its hottest setting and place a large, deep soup pot over the heat. When the pan is very hot, add the olive oil, wait for a minute until it is spitting, and then throw in the chopped red pepper. Toss the chunks in the hot oil until they just begin to blacken in spots. Now turn down the heat to medium and tip in all the chopped tomatoes, the tinned tomatoes, the tomato paste, half the garlic and the bicarbonate of soda. Cook for 30 minutes over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, and breaking up any tomato chunks with the back of a spoon. Add the herbs, the Tabasco sauce, the sugar and the remaining garlic. Pour over just enough stock or water to cover the tomatoes. Allow to bubble fairly briskly for another ten to fifteen minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Tip the mixture into a liquidizer or or food processor fitted with a sharp blade, and whizz until smooth. [You can also use a stick blender]. If want a perfectly silken soup, sieve the mixture into a deep bowl by pressing it through a sieve or strainer with the back of a soup ladle. Return the soup to the pot. Gently reheat the soup, and gradually dribble in the cream. Don't be tempted to add the cream in a gush, as it may curdle, and don't allow the soup to boil. Check the seasoning - this soup needs lots salt - and serve hot, with a swirl of olive oil and perhaps a dot or two of Tabasco sauce.

Serves eight to ten.

* Don't ask me why this recipe needs bicarb, but it does, and this was an important component of my Granny's tomato soup. Oh duh, I get it: the bicarb reduces the tomatoes' acidity.
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Iced tea with Rooibos, Apple and a bit of spice

Here's my recipe for a refreshing iced tea made from South African Rooibos tea and clear apple juice, with spices adding a delicious fragrance. I make up this brew in four-litre batches two or three times a week, and, to my astonishment, my kids have stopped begging for Coke and Sprite and Oros and are eagerly glugging this healthy elixir. And I, too, have given up my unhealthy habit of craving Coca-Cola, Tab, Coke Lite, Coke Zero and all the other synthetic, dark-reddish-black fizzy drinks to which I have been hopelessly addicted since I was ten.

I am grateful to my aunt Gilly Walters for this lovely idea.

This may seem like a complicated recipe, but it's not, if you make up one big batch of spiced sugar syrup, and keep it in the fridge. The beauty of this method is that you can adjust the sweetness of the tea according to your taste. Since I switched to the sugar-free version of Coca-Cola and its devilish ilk a few years back, I have found most juices and cool drinks too be far too sweet for my liking. This recipe allows you to adjust the sweetness at will.

Spiced Iced Tea with Rooibos and Apple

For the spicy sugar syrup - enough to make up several batches:

2 cups (500 ml) white sugar or caster sugar
2 cups (500 ml) water
2 sticks cinnamon
2 whole star anise
6 whole cloves
the thinly pared skin of one lemon

Put all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring slowly to the boil, stirring now and then to dissolve the sugar crystals. Boil rapidly for five minutes, then turn down the heat and allow to bubble very gently for fifteen more minutes until the mixture is clear and starting to get a little syrupy. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely. Decant the mixture into a glass or plastic jug or jar, spices and all, cover, and refrigerate. The longer the mixture steeps, the spicier it will become.

For the tea:

You will need a bucket or very big jug or basin to mix this up.

8 rooibos teabags, or the equivalent in loose tea
2 litres boiling water
1.5 litres clear apple juice, chilled
about 2 cups (500 ml) cold water, to taste
the juice of one lemon
spicy sugar syrup (see above) to taste

Put the teabags or loose tea into a bowl or sturdy glass jug, and pour over the boiling water. Allow to steep for a few hours, or until completely cooled. Pour the tea into a large jug or basin and add the apple juice, the water and the lemon juice [optional]. Now add a glug of the spicy sugar syrup. How much you add depends on how sweet you like your tea - taste it, and decide. Stir well and refrigerate.

Serve with plenty of ice. A slice of lemon, or a sprig of mint or lemon balm will add a bit of zing.

Makes four litres.

This is lovely with peach or apricot juice.

I threw a whole vanilla pod into a recent batch, which added a special fragrance. Today our iced tea was made from rooibos teabags with an Earl Grey flavour. 
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Sunday 19 October 2008

Luscious confit of baby tomatoes, basil and garlic

I know confit is a poncy, cheffy word to use for this wonderful dish of baby tomatoes, basil and garlic gently stewed in lashings of olive oil and butter, but I can't think of a better one: it's not really sauce, and it's not a preserve.

The shops here in South Africa are filled with luscious baby tomatoes, the most delicious and tasty of which are tiny red jewels the size and shape of calamata olives. The label calls them 'Spanish Sante' tomatoes and I've also seen them labelled 'Santine'. If you can't find them, use Rosa baby tomatoes.

The secret to a deep basil taste is to allow the tomatoes to steep for a while after the initial cooking. Excellent on bruschetta, over pasta, or with bacon and eggs. Not for dieters.

Luscious confit of baby tomatoes, basil and garlic

1/2 cup [125 ml] olive oil
2 fat cloves fresh garlic, finely chopped
2 punnets [about three cups] tiny ripe cherry tomatoes, halved if they are bigger than grapes
4 T [60 ml] butter
a large handful of fresh basil, shredded
salt and freshly milled black pepper
a pinch of dried red chilli flakes [optional]

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan or frying pan and add half the garlic. Cook for a minute or two over a gentle heat, but do not allow the garlic to brown. Now add the tomatoes and stew gently for about eight minutes, or until the tomatoes begin to soften and split. Gently crush any unbroken tomatoes with the back of a spoon. Add the butter and half the fresh basil and stir until the butter has just melted. Season with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat and allow the mixture to infuse for half an hour. Now stir in the remaining garlic, and gently reheat the mixture for two or three minutes. When a rich, buttery sauce coats the half-solid tomatoes, add the remaining fresh basil, and the chili flakes, if you're using them. Stir well. If the mixture seems too dry, add a little water [or more butter, if you're throwing caution to the winds].

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