The last few days of summer have found me busily preserving tomatoes for use during the winter. Over in France the long, hot August days were perfect for my first attempt at sundried plum tomatoes which sat shrivelling in the garden sun for two days before being tightly packed into jars with olive oil and thyme. Back here in the UK we had a great crop this year and I batched up several cartons of homemade tomato sauce for the freezer which will be welcome reminders of warmer days during the coming winter months.
All this tomato growing and preserving couldn’t go by without attempting a few new recipe ideas in the kitchen and in a departure from the tried and tested, a provençale classic, soupe au pistou, was subject to a rather tomatoey twist.
Brimming with chunky vegetables from the region, soupe au pistou in various forms is made all year round. Name a vegetable and you’ll probably come across it in this soup at some stage during the year: courgettes, squash and broad beans in summer; pumpkin, turnips, and cabbage in winter. Tomatoes, carrots and onions are always present, and the soup is rounded off with a generous scoop of haricot beans and tiny pasta shapes or rice. The final, essential element is the delicious Niçois sauce called pistou – pesto without the nuts – a spoonful of which is added to the soup as it is served.
My version of the soup is heavy on tomatoes and lighter on other vegetables, but the finishing touches of haricot beans and pasta remain. For the pistou, the aforementioned sundried tomatoes replace green basil, and this gives a real richness to the dish. Add a hunk or two of crusty bread to go with it and you’re away!
(Tomato) soupe au pistou
Serves four for lunch or as a starter
1kg large, ripe tomatoes, peeled, cored and chopped*
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely sliced
1 stick of celery, finely sliced
1 litre of fresh vegetable stock
200g washed swiss chard or spinach (optional)
100g small pasta such as conchigliette, coquillettes or ditali rigati
200g dried haricot beans that have been soaked overnight then simmered until soft
A handful of thyme sprigs
Three bay leaves
1 tsp sea salt and black pepper to taste
Olive oil for frying
* To peel the tomatoes, scoop out the core with a sharp knife and cut a cross in the bottom of each fruit. Place in boiling water until the skins start to peel back. Remove and place in a bowl of cold water. The skins should now peel off easily.
For the pistou:
10 sundried tomatoes from a jar, drained of oil
30g finely grated parmesan
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
60ml extra virgin olive oil
A pinch of salt
Place the pistou ingredients in a blender and blitz on full power for a few seconds. Stir and blitz again until you have a smooth paste. Put the sauce to one side or store in the fridge if it’s hot in the kitchen.
Sauté the onion, carrot and celery in the olive oil until they are soft. Pour in the tomatoes and fry for a further five minutes. Add the stock, thyme and herbs and leave to bubble for 20 minutes. Then throw in the pasta and simmer again for ten minutes or so until cooked through. Finally, stir in the cooked haricot beans and chard / spinach if using. Remove the thyme stalks and bay leaves, then season with salt and pepper.
Pour the soup into individual serving dishes and top each one with a good spoonful of tomato pistou. Ah, summer in a bowl.