In the dark days of winter, the feel-better food you want to eat is a steaming bowl of soup.
This is a food with a long history of comfort; no less an expert than Campbell Soup Co. traces its roots back to 20,000 BC, the approximate date of a soup bowl found in China. (The pottery fragments had scorch marks on them, a sign that the soup had been hot.) More recently, the aura of nourishment and convenience that soup provides was spotlighted during the COVID-19. In the fourth quarter of 2020, Campbell’s sales rose 52 percent compared to the previous year, though they have since retreated closer to pre-pandemic levels.
Traditionally, chicken soup has been considered the de facto cure-all. But Alon Shaya believes that tomato soup, dotted with plump grains of rice, registers even higher on the comfort scale. The acclaimed New Orleans-based chef, whose most recent opening is Miss River in the Four Seasons, addressed the issue in his 2018 cookbook, “Shaya, An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel: A Cookbook” (Knopf; $35) .
The book features a recipe for his tomato and rice soup. “People call chicken soup with rice ‘the Jewish grandmother’s prescription, ‘a cure for whatever ails you,’ he writes in the recipe’s headnote. “This vegetarian version may be even more so; it just makes you feel good.”
Shaya’s tomato soup recipe comes courtesy of his grandmother, Matilda Gerassi. Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, he would fake a high temperature so she would make it for him. “I would stick the thermometer in the radiator and then run down and show it to her. I’d say: ‘Look, I can’t go to school, can you make me that soup?’” She also made chicken soup, “but this was the one I craved.”
The vegan soup employs the standard ingredients you would expect: onions, garlic, and tomatoes, which, at this time of the year should be good-quality canned ones. (If you happen to live in a zone with ripe, fresh ones, go for it.)
Where his soup becomes a work of genius is the inclusion of caramelized tomato paste, which Shaya calls his secret weapon. Spoonfuls of the paste are stirred around with the sautéed onions and olive oil to caramelize and magnify the sweet tomato pop.
He also throws a couple unconventional spices into the pot: Syrian Aleppo chile flakes, which have a sharp, bright heat, and star anise. The tastes bounce around in your mouth. “I always want to keep the flavors rolling; a good way to do that is with spices,” says Shaya. “You might not know exactly what you’re tasting, you just know that it’s interesting.”
As a final soothing touch, there’s the rice, suspended in the thick soup.
Shaya has never served the hot soup at any of his restaurants; he prefers to make it for friends at home. He does offer a chilled version at Miss River, made with Creole tomatoes, tomato paste, and olive oil. This sounds lovely, but it’s not what you crave on a chill winter day.
The following recipe is adapted from “Shaya, An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel: A Cookbook,” by Alon Shaya.
TOMATO SOUP WITH RICE
Serves 6 to 8
Two 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes, or 4 pounds very ripe tomatoes, cored
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon Morton kosher salt
1 dried bay leaf
1 star anise pod
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
¼ cup tomato paste
2 cups water
1/3 cup jasmine rice, or other long grain rice
Put the tomatoes in a blender or food processor and purée; work in batches, if necessary. (If using fresh tomatoes, cut out the cores and coarsely chop them first.)
Put the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Once it’s warm, add the onion, garlic, and salt. Stir occasionally so the onion slices sweat and soften, but don’t let them build any color. When the vegetables are translucent and soft, add the bay leaf, star anise, Aleppo, and sweet paprika. Give everything a good stir, and toast the spices for a minute or two until they’re super-fragrant. Add the tomato paste and stir to combine, letting it toast and build flavor for another couple of minutes.
Add the puréed tomatoes and water, and turn the heat high. Bring everything up to a boil, skim off any foam (being careful not to strain out the spices), and decrease the heat to medium-low.
Cook for 10 minutes until it’s just starting to thicken. Meanwhile, rinse the rice in a sieve until the water runs clear. (Be thorough here, or the starch can gum up the soup.) Once the soup has thickened a bit, add the rice to the pot and let it simmer away, stirring occasionally, until the rice is cooked — 20 to 30 minutes. Before you serve the soup, fish out the spices (or make it a game, and see who finds them in the bowls).
Finish each bowl with a drizzle of olive oil.