Tomato Bisque and Pesto Dippers

The bite of winter is in full swing and many of us have simply had enough of the cold weather. Why not warm up and have a hearty meal all in one fell swoop. The satisfying “tomato soup and grilled cheese” gets a gastronomic makeover for tonight’s purpose. Unlike other highfalutin updates, this soup will appeal to the young and old alike, and those whose tastes run the gamut from simple to sublime.

Our tomato of choice for this soup is the San Marzano. This tomato isn’t a cultivar of other tomatoes, however. It’s a plum tomato grown in Campania near Naples in Italy. It’s canned in a thicker sauce with a basil leaf. The growing conditions give this tomato a fuller flavor with less seeds than other plum tomatoes, and because you can only find them canned (at least here in the US), they are picked when they are perfectly ripe and the most flavorful. They are the ideal tomato to use in this soup. They are also the ideal tomato to use for pizza sauce, for which they are specifically grown, but that’s another story for later.

Since the San Marzano is a plum tomato, companies that can tomatoes will frequently label their canned plum tomatoes as “San Marzano-style” whole peeled tomatoes. These are plum tomatoes that are canned in thicker sauce with a whole basil leaf. To ensure you have the real deal, look for the DOP (Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta) certification on the label. It’s prominently displayed in a large letters on the front.

The rest of this bisque is a straight forward endeavor aside from the blending. Since tomato bisque is a smooth soup, we’ll need to purée all the ingredients after they have simmered. If you’ve ever put hot soup through a blender, you know this can be an explosively dangerous situation. Even with the lid insert removed and a folded towel in place, this soup would need to be blended in batches taking time and multiple bowls. An easier and slightly safer alternative is to use an immersion blender. Like its name implies, the blender blade housing is immersed in the liquid and blending can commence in the pot the soup was made in. This method is slightly safer in that there is an exposed blender blade whirling at many, many rpms, and soup can still be spattered all over the kitchen walls if the blade is lifted too high or tilted near the top of the soup.

But once you get the hang of using the immersion blender, or if you are already skilled with this handy appliance, tomato bisque is less than hour from your grasp. Once you finish the soup with the cream, it’s ready to eat, but if you are completing this meal with the pesto dippers, the soup can be left on very low while you grill the sandwiches. If you have any left, this soup is even better the second day.

Kick this brutally cold and snowy winter in the pants with this hearty soup and sandwich. It won’t disappoint.

Tomato Bisque

  • 28 ounces San Marzano tomatoes in sauce
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons bacon fat
  • 5 tablespoons all purpose flour
  • 5 cups chicken broth
  • 1 cup onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup carrots, roughly chopped
  • 4-5 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 6 ounces tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon celery seeds
  • 3-4 sprigs fresh parsley and thyme
  • 3-4 bay leaves
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • salt and fresh ground pepper to taste 

For the bouquet garni, wrap the parsley, thyme and bay leaves in cheesecloth. Tie the herbs into a bundle and cut off the excess cheese cloth. Or tie the herb bundle with butcher’s twine. Set aside.

In a large dutch oven over medium heat, melt the butter and bacon grease and sweat the carrots, onion and garlic until they are tender and fragrant but not brown, about 4 minutes. Add the celery seeds and salt and fresh ground black pepper and stir for an additional minute. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and stir to combine, cook for an additional 3 minutes. Add the whole tomatoes and the rest of the ingredients minus the cream, and bring the soup to a gentle simmer stirring continuously to dissolve the roux in the liquids. Add the bouquet garni to the soup and submerge. Simmer the soup uncovered on medium low for 30 minutes.

Remove the herbs and discard. Purée the soup until it is smooth by either blending in batches in a blender or using an immersion blender. Return the soup to the dutch oven, if necessary and add the cream, stirring to completely combine. Serve immediately, or hold over low while you grill the pesto dippers.

Pesto Dippers

  • Sliced hearty white bread
  • Basil pesto
  • Fresh mozzarella, sliced
  • Softened butter 

Spread a moderately thick layer of pesto on one slice of bread and cover with an even layer of fresh moz slices. Top with another slice of bread. Cover the top slice of bread with an medium layer of softened butter. Heat a sandwich press over low heat while you are heating the griddle. Grill the pesto dippers over medium heat on a preheated griddle, butter side down for approximately 3 minutes a side, or until they are nicely browned, turning once. The butter from the first side will be sufficient for grilling the second side. Place the heated sandwich press on the sandwich once it’s turned to continue heating the sandwich from both sides. The sandwich press will ensure that your cheese is melted without burning the bread.

Slice the pesto dippers on the diagonal and serve with the soup.