As the cold weather settles into Iowa, my cooking turns more to hearty soups and stews. One of my favorite soups is tomato basil bisque, but until recently I had never made it from scratch. Then about a month ago I ended up with about a pound of tomatoes on the verge of going bad – I cubed them and threw them in a pot with some salt, garlic, and pepper, and cooked it all down. After some pureeing, some sieving, and the addition of some cream and basil I sat down to my first batch of homemade tomato basil bisque.

I’ve made several batches and I’ve worked out a recipe that I’m fairly happy with. If anyone is still finding late season tomatoes at a local farmer’s market you might want to try this recipe. I managed to snag a box of “canning” tomatoes (basically tomatoes that were just fine except for some cosmetic flaws) at $15 for almost 20 pounds. I turned a large chunk of this bounty into soup and froze some of it in freezer bags for later in the winter.

Also, this recipe is good on it’s own, but my favorite way to eat it is with some stale bread and pecorino romano or parmesan. It’s like the best grilled cheese and tomato soup turned into a pseudo-Italian tomato bread soup. Basically take any stale crusty white bread (I usually use old baguette or ciabbatta) and break it into hard bite-sized pieces. Place them in a bowl and shave some cheese over top with a vegatable peeler. Top with some hot soup and everything becomes soft, rich, and creamy – a little extra basil on top finishes it off.

Tomato Basil Bisque

3 lbs tomatoes
2 large garlic cloves
large pinch red pepper flakes
2 tsp salt
1/4 cup cream
8 large basil leaves (or to taste)

Place a large heavy pot on the stove over medium heat. Add a tablespoon of oil, the red pepper flakes, and the garlic cloves, crushed. Rinse the tomatoes and cut out any bad spots. Cut the tomatoes up and drop them directly into the pot – you can leave them in halves even. When the tomatoes have all been added, add the salt, cover the pot and let everything cook for about 30 minutes. Stir the tomatoes occasionally and turn the heat down if anything starts to stick.

I usually turn the heat off after 30 minutes and let the tomatoes sit, covered, to cook for about 30 minutes. Then puree the tomatoes in either a blender or food processor. Set a fine mesh sieve over a large bowl and ladle some of the tomato puree into the sieve. Do this a little at a time and press as much of the pulp and liquid through the sieve as you can and then discard the peel, seeds, and other fibers too large to fit through.

After straining all the tomatoes, return the puree to the pot and turn the heat on to low. Add the cream and finely sliced basil (if you have good knife skills you can chiffonade the basil, otherwise stack all the basil leaves and cut into fine strips with a sharp pair of scissors). When the soup is steaming (don’t let it come back to a boil) take it off the heat and serve. Serves 2-4 people.