Some of Anne Byrn's summer tomato haul
Just yesterday, I woke up craving vegetable soup. Not in that mid-winter, cold-to-the-bone way you crave hearty vegetable soup. No, I was craving a fresher garden vegetable soup, using all the okra, squash, green beans, and ... drumroll, please ... ripe tomatoes growing in my backyard.
Full disclosure, many of these tomatoes are ripening on my kitchen windowsill because I have been in a frustrating race with the squirrels to pluck them first. You gardeners will understand. I've had to pick green ones to ripen up indoors — anything to savor the taste of a homegrown tomato.
And combined with zucchini, yellow crookneck squash, green beans and the okra that seem to come all at once in the Southern garden, I've got the raw ingredients for soup. It takes an hour to cook, and improves a bit if you've got a bit more time to let it simmer down. But you don't want to cook this soup so much that you can't taste what's inside. It's light, yet comforting. Here's how I make it.
Summer vegetable soup is easily adaptable
First decide if you are making a vegetarian soup or if you want your version to contain a little ground turkey or beef for substance and flavor. I don't use any more than 8 ounces ground meat per recipe, and I often use less, sautéed in just a tablespoon or two of olive oil. This, and the addition of chicken broth or chicken bouillon, gives this soup a bit of richness and heft. You can, of course, omit the meat, and create a vegetarian soup by sautéing onions in olive oil and using vegetable broth instead of water. Suit yourself.
Summer soup calls for fresh tomatoes. When they're not in season, I use canned tomatoes: one large can and one regular-size can, plus enough water to fill each. But when I've got fresh tomatoes, I use about two and a half pounds, which is about five to six medium-large tomatoes, cored and chopped. The riper the tomato, the sweeter the soup. Peel the tomatoes beforehand if you like, or leave the skin on if you're in a hurry.
Next, I add water, a little tomato or pasta sauce from the fridge to intensify the flavor, and aromatic flavorings like a bay leaf, salt and pepper, and chicken bouillon. Let this come to a simmer and cook down until the tomatoes are soft, about 20 minutes. Then add about six cups of your favorite garden veggies, all cut in the same size dice. I like zucchini and yellow squash, green beans and okra. I'll slice the kernels from an ear of fresh white or yellow corn right into the pot. Put the lid on the pot, bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat and let everything simmer to doneness.
To make your soup even more vegetable-packed, add a couple big handfuls of fresh spinach leaves or kale to the pot about five minutes before the soup has finished cooking. Stir in the greens, and let them wilt into the soup. And if you like, dollop fresh pesto onto the soup as a garnish, and serve with a warm grilled cheese sandwich. It's summer in a bowl!
How to preserve this summer flavor
Thankfully, this vegetable soup freezes well for the months ahead. To prepare it for freezing, let the soup cool to room temperature, then ladle into canning jars. Leave about 1 inch of headspace at the top for the soup mixture to expand as it freezes. Place the lids on top, and secure the lids by tightening the ring. Or, you can freeze in any freezer-safe glass container. The soup will freeze well for up to six months. To defrost, place it in the refrigerator overnight before heating up in a saucepan.
Summer Tomato Vegetable Soup
Note: To intensify the tomato flavor of the soup, I add a couple tablespoons tomato sauce. Keep in mind that you need a mix of vegetables. Okra, for example, is a thickener, so don't add more than 1 cup. And different veggies cook at different rates. Break the green beans into 1-inch pieces. Add them to the pot along with the tomatoes to get a little extra time cooking.
Serves: 6 to 8
Hands-On Time: About 30 minutes
Total Time: About 1 1/2 hours
1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces ground turkey or beef (optional)
1/2 cup diced onions
2 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored and chopped into 1-inch dice (about 7 cups)
2 to 2 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons tomato sauce (see note)
1 bay leaf
1 to 2 teaspoons dried chicken bouillon or 1 tablespoon bouillon paste (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 cups assorted summer vegetables, such as diced squash, 1-inch pieces of green beans, and/or sliced okra
1 small ear white or yellow corn, kernels cut from the cob (about 1/2 cup)
2 packed cups fresh spinach or kale leaves (optional)
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the ground turkey, if using, and cook, stirring, until browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the onion, and continue to cook, stirring, until softened, 5 to 7 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and all of their juices to the pot along with 2 cups of the water, the tomato sauce and the bay leaf. Add the chicken bouillon, if desired. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and let the tomatoes simmer until they've broken down, 15 to 20 minutes. (If using fresh green beans, add them with the tomatoes.)
Stir in the mixed vegetables and the corn. Cover the pot and continue to simmer until the vegetables are just cooked through, 40 to 45 minutes. Add the remaining 1/2 cup water if needed. Taste for seasoning about halfway through the cooking, and add more salt and pepper as needed.
If desired, just before serving, add the spinach or kale to the pot, and stir until the greens wilt. Spoon into bowls and serve.