I went to watch “Stranger than Fiction” today (which incidentally is a wonderful movie, especially poignant for fiction writers). The connection with this movie to tomato provencal soup? The movie theater was across the street from a Sunday farmer’s market.
Though I love farmer’s markets, and find them incredibly invigorating and fun, I’m often too lazy to coordinate my schedule and get myself over to a bounty-of-local-harvest-that-is-only-available-for-a-few-hours-once-a-week. I know. Horrible. I kick myself every week as I browse through second tier fruit and veg at a chain grocery store during my odd night hour shopping expeditions. Even my local favorite, Berkeley Bowl, cannot keep up with produce a mere few hours off the farm. But–I am not so lazy that when a farmer’s market is across the street from I’m supposed to be that I will not go visit! So off to the farmer’s market I went.
Visits to the farmer’s market bring me a weird inner peace and inspiration. How can I feel that way about produce? But I do. For me, I have similar experiences staring at art pieces in a museum. Maybe it’s not so big a leap: after all, these are all creations.
Just look at these green onions:
How beautiful are they? How the purple and green interplay? How there is such a perfect and striking balance? Could I write a story so natural and brilliant?
Or take a look at these tomatoes:
They’re the last tomatoes of the season–all over the market were signs that declared, “Last week for grapes” and “Last Early Girl Tomatoes.” Immediately, before they had even disappeared, I became nostalgic! I missed them already!
I stood, in the middle of the market, arms weighed down with yams, tangerines, mushrooms, and one huge brussel sprout stalk, feeling kind of sad and also inspired and also peaceful and happy. There were fewer stalls than I’d been last, in the height of summer, and there was a sort of empty feeling. Then again, it’s autumn, my favorite season, and I delighted in this very natural transition.
How to deal with these mixed feelings? I stared at the tomatoes. How could I not have the “last Early Girl tomatoes” of the season? They felt more special somehow. I gathered a couple pounds of them, feeling their soft smooth skins in my hands; they were tender to the touch. So fragile, and vulnerable these last tomatoes were!
What could I make with these tomatoes? I thought of Sam at Becks & Posh who herself bought a 20 lb box and made sauce reserves of the last tomatoes, so precious are the taste of summer tomatoes. I felt ambivalent and yet whimsical: Summer, Autumn. Tomatoes…and soup. I decided that these tomatoes were enough to make a soup to pay homage to both summer and autumn.
No normal soup would do, either. It could not be an “average tomato soup.” So I decided to make a provencal tomato soup with rice. I am a fan of this particular recipe for the balance between decadent saffron and irreverent red-pepper. It makes me think of the French countryside with a bit of a kick. What a way to celebrate the last tomatoes of the season.
Recipe follows after the jump…
RECIPE for Provencal Tomato Soup with Rice
Adapted from Epicurious
Gourmet September 2006 issue
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
2 lb tomatoes
1 medium onion, halved lengthwise, then thinly sliced crosswise (I decreased this from the original 2 onions)
1 medium carrot, coarsely grated
1 celery rib, finely chopped (I omitted the celery because I didn’t have any)
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 (3- by 1-inch) strips fresh orange zest, finely chopped
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
Scant 1/4 teaspoon dried hot red-pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 Turkish bay leaf or 1/4 California
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 cups water
1 3/4 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth (14 fl oz)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Pinch crumbled saffron threads
1 to 2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 cup long-grain white rice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
Cut a shallow X in bottom of each tomato with a sharp paring knife. Blanch tomatoes in batches of 2 or 3 in a 5- to 6-quart pot of boiling water 10 seconds, transferring with a slotted spoon to a bowl of ice and cold water to stop cooking.
Peel tomatoes, then halve crosswise. Squeeze halves gently, cut sides down, over a sieve set over a bowl to extract seeds and juices, then press on seeds and discard them. Reserve juice and tomatoes.
Cook onions, carrot, celery, garlic, zest, thyme, red-pepper flakes, fennel seeds, and bay leaf in oil in a 2 1/2- to 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, about 5 minutes.
Add tomatoes with reserved juice, tomato paste, water, chicken broth, salt, pepper, saffron, and 1 teaspoon sugar, then simmer, uncovered, stirring and breaking up tomatoes with a spoon occasionally, 20 minutes. Stir in rice and simmer, uncovered, until rice is tender, 10 to 20 minutes. Discard bay leaf and stir in parsley, basil, and sugar and salt to taste.