One of the best parts of Autumn is the harvest of the bounty of summer and the final payoff of all of those long hours in the garden. It is a time when our kitchen kicks back into gear after it’s long summer break, at time for baking and best of all a time for soups and stews. There is little more welcoming than coming home to the smell of freshly-baked bread and a pot of stew that has been simmering all day. One of my favorite Fall dinners is my mother’s Tomato Basil Bisque with a grilled cheddar cheese sandwich on homemade sourdough bread, now that is serious comfort food. Normally, by this time of year we have to rely on tomatoes that we canned earlier in the season, but here we are in the first week of October and we still have fresh tomatoes on the vine, so let’s take advantage of them.
It is safe to say that it has been one strange summer, meteorologically speaking anyways. It was never terribly hot and we had more than enough rain, but I will get back to that later, first I want to talk about our garden. This year we took up organic gardening, which is to say that we added no artificial fertilizers or pesticides, etc. to the garden. We also avoided herbicides and if you do not count the initial turning and tilling of the soil, we used no petroleum burning machinery in the care of the garden this year, so our carbon footprint is way down. In fact, it is nearly non-existent, because, excepting the initial planting, we have done almost nothing to our garden this season. I would like to say it is because we are terribly forward-thinking and eco-conscious, but the fact of the matter is we were lazy and it seems to have worked out for us.
We tilled the soil this spring with the best of intentions. We had made plans and diagrams, cut items that we never really enjoyed anyway, added items that we wanted to try out. We expanded our tomato section to sixteen plants, focusing mostly on heirloom varieties and specialty plants. We had Cherokee Purple’s, Mr. Stripey, Abraham Lincoln, Russian Red, Brandywines, Golden Jubilee’s and several other interesting varieties, in shades from deep purple to bright yellow and every color of red imaginable. We added tomatillo to the mix and more varieties of pepper, while cutting back on corn and beans. We spent a couple of days turning the soil and tilling down to a perfect consistency before laying off our rows and planting, being sure to add just the right amount of composted manure to each plant’s bed. Ah yes, we had a garden to make my grandparent’s proud.
A few days later the first shoots began to break the ground and we beamed with joy. As our plants grew the rains came and watered our new garden and we were so proud and the rain kept coming and coming and coming. For thirteen days in May it rained nearly non-stop, no storms, just a constant steady soaking rain. The rivers around us rose and the fields were flooded and most of our carefully planted seeds were washed away. After the sun came back from it’s spring vacation we found that the tomatoes had survived and our herb garden was in good shape, but most everything else was a loss. The rest of the season has seen enough rain to make our garden a nearly impassable mud pit most of the time. So, we did what any respectable family would do, we gave up. Our garden now has a decidedly different look, the Johnson grass is as high as an elephant’s eye, and to the casual observer it is little more than a patch of weeds. I’ve got a secret though, it turns out that we have one of the ugliest but most productive gardens ever. If you arm yourself with a machete and bear spray and head off into the wilds of deepest, darkest garden, you will find a veritable cornucopia of harvest delights. The tomatoes are thriving in the wilds and our basil looks more like trees than bushes. So it looks like going full-on organic, albeit inadvertently, has worked well for us this year.
To take advantage of our bounty of fresh tomatoes and incredibly pungent basil, the wife and I decided to put together a pot of my mother’s Tomato Basil Bisque to share with friends last weekend. Now, this is not a true bisque, the way we make it, because I prefer to dice the fresh tomatoes into fairly substantial chunks, where a true bisque would really puree them. This recipe is still an excellent dish if you substitute canned diced tomatoes, but when you use homegrown tomatoes and fresh basil this one really sings. I suggest serving it with grilled cheese sandwiches, preferably made with aged Irish cheddar on homemade sourdough bread.
Mother Monkey’s Tomato Basil Bisque
2 Tablespoons of Butter
1/2 Onion, finely chopped, I am fond of a Vidalia for this
2 cups of diced tomatoes, drained
2 cans of condensed tomato soup, I use Campbell’s
2 cups of whole milk, I actually usually use skim or 1% here, but Mom’s recipe calls for whole.
1 cup of cream
1/2 a bunch of fresh basil, that’s about 1 ounce finely chopped
Parmesan cheese to taste, I prefer shaved, but grated works if that is what you have
Cracked black pepper and sea salt to taste
Sour cream (optional)
Sauté onions in butter over medium heat for five minutes or so, until they are soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes to the pan, mix with the onions and continue cooking for 5 more minutes, then reduce to low heat. Blend in tomato soup, milk and cream and continue cooking for 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until soup is hot. Add freshly chopped basil, reserving some for garnish, and stir until well blended.
Serve topped with Parmesan cheese and fresh basil for garnish. I will sometimes add a dollop of sour cream to each bowl to deepen the flavor and I always add lots of fresh cracked black pepper.