I went to Rome, Florence and Venice this summer and I expected to come back armed with dozens of recipes and gobs of inspiration. As much as I loved my experience there and feel very lucky to even have been able to go, I was a little deflated and uninspired when I returned. For one thing – it was hot and humid and very crowded. It also was very touristy and the food, though delicious, was very much the stereotype pizza, pasta and tempura fried seafood. I am happy to have added three new books to my regional cookbook collection, but honestly – I haven’t cracked open one of those books.
Over Labor Day weekend I went to Sausalito and San Francisco. I fell in love with the people, the food, the city, the bay – everything. I couldn’t get enough of downtown Sausalito, the San Francisco skyline, the bay breeze, North Beach, Nob Hill, Chinatown, Union Square – everything! I could write an entire blog post about my new crush named San Francisco, but I’ll just say that I highly recommend Cavallo Point Resort in Sausalito and the Westin St. Francis at Union Square in the city. I also very highly recommend the three-story Williams-Sonoma in the Union Square area (as well as the Tiffany, but that’s like six more blog posts). I think I may have started singing a song from “The Sound of Music” and spinning in circles with my arms held out as I entered the store, completely and happily overstimulated by the three stories of utter home-making pleasure. In the end, I walked away with the 303-paged, “Soup of the Day: 365 Recipes for Every Day of the Year.” Probably not the most lightweight souvenir, but my husband bought it for me saying, “This is to help you remember our ‘souper’ trip.” How could I refuse?!
The first recipe that I decided to make was this tomato-bread soup with basil oil. Commonly known as pappa al pomodoro, this is a Tuscan classic. Go figure that it took a trip to San Francisco to inspire me to cook something that represents my trip to Italy. You can find this recipe on page 204.
This soup turned out delicious. It’s surprisingly hearty, mostly due to the homemade bread croutons and minced vegetables. It’s pretty easy to make, but there’s a fair amount of prep work involved with the veggies, basil oil and fried basil. I cut the veggies a little bigger than the “minced” size it was calling for, hoping that my husband would find it filling enough. It was worth every teary-eyed onion chop, though, and has motivated me to open those Italian cookbooks!
For the basil oil: 1 cup (1 oz./30 g) packed basil leaves 3/4 cup (6 fl. oz./180 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1 loaf country-style bread, crusts removed, cut into 1 1/2-inch (4-cm) cubes Salt and freshly ground pepper 6 Tbsp. (3 fl. oz./90 ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling 3 celery ribs, minced 3 white onions, minced 2 carrots, peeled and minced 2 cloves garlic, minced 2 Tbsp. tomato paste 2 lb (1 kg) plum tomatoes, peeled (see my pasta caprese post), seeded and coarsely chopped 1 tsp sugar
TO MAKE THE BASIL OIL, bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Have a bowl of ice water ready. Set aside eight to 12 of the basil leaves. Blanch the remaining leaves in the boiling water for about 10 seconds. Drain and plunge into the ice water. Drain again, and squeeze the leaves to remove as much of the water as possible. Transfer to a blender (I used my Kitchen Aid hand blender attachment), add the oil and pulse until the mixture is a uniform green. Strain the basil through a fine-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth.
TO MAKE THE BREAD CROUTONS, preheat the oven to 350 degrees fahrenheit. Arrange the bread cubes in a single layer on a baking sheet, season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Bake until lightly toasted, about 10 minutes.
MEANWHILE, in a large heavy pot, warm 4 Tbsp. of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the celery, onions, carrots and garlic and sauté until the vegetables are softened, but not browned, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for five minutes. Add the tomatoes and sugar and season with salt and pepper. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are softened, about 10 minutes.
Add the toasted bread cubes and six cups of water to the pot. Stir to combine with the vegetables, bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, and cook, uncovered and stirring often, until the bread has softened, about 15 minutes. Whisk the soup vigorously to break up the bread cubes (you can use a large whisk or even a potato masher). Keep warm.
IN A SMALL FRYING PAN, warm the remaining 2 Tbs. olive oil over medium heat. Add the reserved basil leaves and fry, turning once, until crisp and slightly translucent, 30 seconds. Transfer to paper towels to drain and cool.
SERVE THE SOUP, garnished with the fried basil and drizzled with basil oil. Don’t skip this step – the fried basil adds a great crispy texture as an accent to the soup.