Magic ingredient

My soups always taste thin, my sister said.
I know just the thing, I told her.

I’d forgotten about tomato paste for years. Didn’t even use it in all that time I was in Italy (and strangely, that’s when I stopped using balsamic vinegar too). Something about its concentratedness in the can or tube, its seemingly close relation to V8, ketchup, and Campbell’s tomato soup never made me want to keep it around. But Melissa Clark’s recipe for red lentil soup changed all that. Its appeal was so great that I picked up a couple of cans of tomato paste back in January when I read the recipe, stuck them in the cupboard, and promptly forgot about them.

But then it snowed. A lot. And the mercury dropped. A lot. And the kitchen gnome inside me poked me with his big wooden spoon and said, yo, maybe it’s time to make a dent in those chicken stock reserves in the freezer.

This is seriously one of the best soups I’ve made, maybe ever. (I will say, though, that my butternut squash is pretty good too; and so is the roasted carrot that I’ve incorporated from Steven’s repertoire. Those, however, largely benefit from being mostly pureed veg; they can’t help but have body. Dairy fat doesn’t hurt either.) I didn’t have cumin or cilantro, and I think I threw in a big dried guajillo chile just because it fell out of the cupboard when I was rummaging around, but the flavor was just right. It was big bodied, fill-your-mouth flavor. It was so good that I think I managed to down nearly a quart of it.

The tomato paste effect has to be an umami thing, combined with a little acidity. Something about it binds all the ingredients and amplifies the sum effect. It’s magic.

Just imagine how thrilled I was, then, to see this in the local paper last week. That Bittman is a genius. And I’m more convinced all the time that Melissa Clark is right up there too. She writes the kind of recipes I want to make. And eat, most importantly.

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