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Gastronomy in this Economy- Tomato and Bread Soup

I know, I know, eating healthy is synonymous with expense. And people will fiercely debate this- there's no arguing that organic choices are usually always more expensive than conventional. And like most anything important worth talking about, I see it as a big grey area, but maybe not for the reasons you think. Yes, its really hard to eat well on food stamps, from SNAP, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. I've read the "experiments" as you probably have too, from people who are not otherwise on SNAP but trying it out to prove a point that its not adequate assistance. For my family of 5, it would be about 5 dollars a day. And yes, it's almost impossible to have that exclusively as your source of grocery money. 

I have a couple viewpoints, and then I promise I'll get to the recipe this month that I'm in love with. This is relevant, I promise, hang in there. I do care about this issue and like opening up discussion.

1. The name of the benefit SNAP itself is self explanatory- its supplemental, its not the end all, be all of solving food insecurity.

2. The real problem is, most people don't have the primary piece that SNAP is supposed to supplement-  instead its expected to cover all the families food costs for the month. Most people assume this missing component is more money, and of course that would be helpful.  I'd agrue this was more of a missing skill and education around food frugality and cooking, something historically passed down generation to generation about food and waste. Much of the world lives on very little for food. The sweat equity and knowledge capital are also valuable I argue.

3. This problem has existed in one form or another for all of history- is that too bold a statement?  Whether from droughts, plights, or rocky economic times, people, and truthfully- often women and mothers, were the ones who had to find a way to make food last and they didn't have ample grocery money. 

I had a reminder of this when I traveled to Tuscany this summer and read up on regional Tuscan cuisine, had a woman come to our rental cottage and teach us rustic cooking, as well as I devoured the book An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Grace and Economy by Tamar Adler, who has a strong Tuscan influence to her style of cooking. 

Despite whatever impression you have of Tuscany, know that its food culture history stems from peasants in a farming community. Peasants. Your (if you were a Tuscan peasant, of course) olive oil came from your tree (as common as our pear and apple trees here in WA) and your eggs from your chicken pecking under the tree. Making meals last and stretch was so common it became an art form. Adler talks about home cooking having an inherent frugality and I can't agree more. You can have on had only the simpliest and humblest of ingredients and make beautiful and nutrious food. Yes, it might not be the super food trend of the month or year, but it is wholesome food. Where the challenge lies is knowing what to do with peels, bones, fatty bits, stems and otherwise cast off pieces of food to recreate them into your next meal, adding nutrition and substance. It seems peasants just knew this inside and out and it was facinating to learn what they could do with so little.  

I won't go on and on, I'm really not trying to be on a soapbox, but rather present a way of thinking about food issues a little differently, to make it as commonplace as the outrage many express over the problem. I believe outrage gets us nowhere- in anger is always fear. Proactive changes, education, and historical perspectives I think make opportunities for improvement possible. 

Now to our exercise in food frugality, my first of what I hope will become Gastronomy in thie Economy series- recipes for eating wholesome and frugal and simple. This rustic soup uses bread that's stale and no one will eat, but was great a few days ago when you made it yourself (because we are still pretending to be Tuscan peasants, right?) out of flour, salt, yeast, sugar, oil, and an egg. We use the entire basil plant- stems and all. We use a ton of tomatoes- a typical summer bumper crop in my area that many people can in late summer to have all year, but cook them two different ways to get a depth of flavor. And garlic and oil, of course. This soup is cheap, wholesome, and let's nothing go to waste from a previous meal consisting of fresh bread and hopefully whatever was in the garden, or the cold storage from warmer times. Of course, here at my house, good olive oil isn't as cheap as directly from your own olive grove in Tuscany, where you could press your own for minimal cost and have enough oil for the year, but you get the idea hopefully. People historically have learned to use what is locally available and plentiful. And surprisingly, a plant-based diet with a foundation in grains, beans, and vegetables is also historically the most frugal way of eating. They saved the fatty meat, sugar, alcohol for celebrations, if at all. 

[Side note, which reminds me of my Grandma, who's Slovak origins meant that most everything she made traditionally had either potatoes or cabbage in it. She could do so much with cabbage and potatoes it would blow your mind.]  

Thought for the day- what (native to your area) plants can we use and benefit from cheaply for our own use? What can be grown in community gardens, found in the wild, or taught to grow in pots on their porches as commonly as we teach people to obey traffic laws? Why are supplemental programs giving people money to buy prepared convenience foods in a grocery store more common than food/cooking education with raw ingredients. When and why did food and cooking become an upper class hobby? Do we really think people will thrive indefinitely if we give them money to buy or donate to them canned convenience foods and stale donuts from Starbucks? How can we prioritize food economy and frugality as a cultural value? Why does this all seem backwards and confusing to my brain- why are those on the most frugal diets the most unhealthy? I don't have the answers, I just have a lot of questons that I don't hear being asked enough. Now, make the soup and meditate on these.  

Tomato and Bread Soup (thanks to Rouxbe.com for the recipe and for unriveled cooking education )

-read through the whole recipe first-

Roasting the Tomatoes:

1 lb cherry tomatoes

1 clove garlic

1 bunch fresh basil

olive oil

sea salt

pepper

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (175 degree Celsius). 

Prick the cherry tomatoes with a fork and place into a bowl. Emince the garlic and sprinkle over top. Remove the leaves from the basil stems (reserve the stems) and add one-quarter of the leaves to the bowl. Drizzle the tomatoes with olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss to coat evenly. 

Place onto a roasting tray and roast for approximately 20 to 30 minutes to concentrate/caramelize.

Making the Soup:

2 cloves garlic

28 ounces canned or jarred tomatoes

3-4 cups stale rustic bread

salt

pepper

olive oil

water (or broth)

Finely dice the reserved basil stems and mince the garlic. 

Place the olive oil, basil stems and garlic in a heavy-bottomed pot. Turn the heat to medium and gently fry the garlic until fragrant but not brown. Once fragrant, add the canned tomatoes and break them up slightly with a wooden spoon. Add the water and bring to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook for about 10 to 15 minutes. 

In the meantime, break up the bread into bite-size pieces. Once the soup has simmered for about 15 minutes, add the bread to the soup. Tear the remaining basil leaves into the soup and stir (reserve a few for garnish, if desired). Reduce the heat to low and let sit for about 10 minutes to thicken. 

Once the tomatoes are roasted, add them to the soup, scraping any nice caramelized bits into the pot. Stir to combine. Season to taste. 

The soup should have a thick, porridge-like texture to it. If it is too thick, adjust the consistency with a bit of water. 

Remove the soup from the heat and add the olive oil. Serve the soup in warmed bowls. Garnish with the extra basil, if desired.