Genius Recipes

15-Minute Creamy (Vegan!) Tomato Soup + a Call for Your Best Beginner Cooking Tips

The Food Lab strikes again.

January  2, 2019

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.

Photo by Ty Mecham

In this moment of renewal and return to normal kitchen life, I would like to give you a gift: a 15-minute, extremely cozy and smart tomato soup that will improve the lots of all of us. The weeknight speed demons, vegans, grilled cheese obsessives, parents of small children, solo diners, and, perhaps most of all, cooks who are just beginning. And I'm going to ask a favor in return: I want your favorite beginner recipes and tips. But we’ll get to that!

First: this simple, powerful, giving little soup.

Of all the clever things J. Kenji López-Alt has done in his career—the Food Lab cookbook and column at Serious Eats, the years clocked at America’s Test Kitchen and on restaurant lines—this 15-minute soup is one of his favorites, and one he makes most often.**

Photo by Ty Mecham

Here’s how Kenji gets maximum mileage out of a few pantry staples in only 15 minutes:

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I haven't yet read through all the comments so here is my contribution on the topic of roasting red peppers and how many recipes make the process far more difficult than it needs to be. It makes me want to scream when I see recipes suggesting that you blacken peppers whole over an open flame, or broil them whole in the oven. There is nothing more irritating and time consuming than trying to peel, core and remove the seeds and pithy ribs from a now limp and cooked whole pepper. And don't even get me started on the idea of putting them into a paper bag to rest after cooking to make removing the skins easier. Talk about a way to lose all the flavourful juices and who has paper bags hanging around anyway? I split, core and remove the ribs from my peppers first, and then flatten them with my hand before putting them on a baking sheet under the broiler. Not too close because you want the peppers to soften before the skins are blackened. Flattening the peppers ensures more even cooking and blackening of the skins. When sufficiently blackened, I put them in a bowl or shallow baking dish to cool with a tea towel over the bowl to hold in the steam. Give them half an hour or so and they will be cool enough to handle and the skins will come off fairly easily. All the juices will have collected in the dish and can be added to whatever you are making with the roasted peppers. This process works well - and you can do a quantity of peppers easily for freezing and using at a later date. ”
— carswell
Comment

First, he slices an onion very thinly and grates a couple cloves of garlic, so that they cook swiftly as soon as they land in hot oil, with a hit of dried oregano and dried chile flakes sizzling along with them. In other, mellower recipes, these aromatics would enter and build in layers so chunks of onion can soften without garlic burning, fresh herbs can keep their mojo. But here, they’re prepped and timed perfectly so you can get on with your soup, and your night.

Next is the one-two punch that allows him to conjure a creamy soup without any cream or butter: Punch 1) He adds a little sandwich bread in with the tomatoes to break down as he brings the soup up to a boil. Punch 2) Then, after a 5-minute simmer as a quick icebreaker for all the ingredients, he blends the soup while slowly streaming in olive oil. Much like in making gazpacho, the bread helps the oil latch on and emulsify into a lighter, thicker, creamier soup that softens all the spicy, acidic edges. Kenji says you could consider this hot gazpacho. It might sound a little funny, but why not?

Photo by Ty Mecham

So there’s your perfect little soup recipe for the new year, featuring a few genius tricks you can use next time you want to smooth out a harsh-tasting soup or sauce or stew, or thicken a wan one, or get to onion-garlic-spice harmony super fast.

But before you run off to get your grilled-cheese station ready, I’d love to hear from you: What other recipes and unexpected tips have made the biggest difference for you, or for your kids, timid partners, or friends who are new to cooking but want desperately to feel less so? The beginner-friendly tricks that don’t take a lot of earned muscle memory in the kitchen, that will inspire and reward people who are new to cooking, and not punish them for misstepping or lacking exactly the right pan size or appliance or fancy ingredient in their pantry. Those tricks. I know you've got them!


A Call for Beginner-Friendly Tips

Here’s why: I’m starting to work on Genius Cookbook #3, following on the heels of Genius Recipes and Genius Desserts. This new one is for beginners and skill-sharpeners, and I’m really hoping it can provide a different, more intuitive and visually inspiring companion for budding cooks than your average cooking manual. To pull this off, just like last time, I'm going to need your help. Here are a few questions to start you off:

1) What are the recipes that you think will change a beginning cook’s life? They can be general (fried rice) or specific (Roberto Santibañez’s Classic Guacamole).

2) What books or cooking teachers made the biggest impact on you when you were first learning to cook?

3) What are the rules that have made you feel more powerful and successful in the kitchen? I’m not looking for read the recipe first or mise en place, useful as they may be, since those are often the first things books say to do. I want the unexpected lessons you remember from an old Two Fat Ladies episode or Julie Sahni cookbook, or the ones you learned the hard way.

4) What are the oft-said rules you really don’t have to follow? For example: replace your spices every 6 months. Nope, not doing that. How about instead: know that spices lose their oomph over time, and replace them when it will matter for what you’re cooking (or use a little more in a pinch)?

5) Anything else you really, really want me to know?

Thank you, once again, for sharing your wisdom with all of us—I know you’ll have strong opinions. I can’t wait to hear them.

**In fact, as Kenji recently told me, "I literally just made that soup for [my daughter] Alicia last week when we got to our Airbnb after a nine-hour car ride with virtually no fresh ingredients stocked in the kitchen. I think I cut it down to about 7 minutes ;)"

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]—thank you to magical writer and cook (and former Food52 editor) Caroline Lange for this one!

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The Genius Desserts cookbook is here! With more than 100 of the most beloved and talked-about desserts of our time (and the hidden gems soon to join their ranks) this book will make you a local legend, and a smarter baker to boot.

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65 Comments

Hannah211 January 12, 2019
Don't use bread. Use 1-2 oz tofu of any kind. It puréed well when I made it, the soup was silky and creamy, no chunks. I am not a vegan but sometimes I go a few weeks of not eating meat or highly starchy food after the holidays, hence removing the bread from this recipe.<br /><br />Oh, and no, it didn't taste of tofu. Tofu always soaks up the flavor of the main dish you create.
 
Hannah211 January 12, 2019
Don't use bread. Use 1-2 oz tofu of any kind. It puréed well when I made it, the soup was silky and creamy, no chunks. I am not a vegan but sometimes I go a few weeks of not eating meat or highly starchy food after the holidays, hence removing the bread from this recipe.<br /><br />Oh, and no, it didn't taste of tofu. Tofu always soaks up the flavor of the main dish you create.
 
Tom T. January 6, 2019
I am so sorry, but bread in soup is a completely disgusting texture for me. My gazpacho never has it and I am not going to start now with this faux "creamy" hack. It's like slurping someone's vomit. Sorry, again.<br />Additionally, I am not nutty vegan scurrying around avoiding animal product ingredients.<br />I can add butter and cream with pride and no shame to get the real meaning of creamy, not pureed bread.
 
Mrs B. January 6, 2019
This soup, which I've been making since K.J.A.-L. first posted it on Serious Eats (6? 7? years ago), is even better with one small carrot, thinly sliced, added right after the onion - inspired by this other outstanding K.J.A.-L. tomato soup: https://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2016/09/thick-creamy-tomato-soup-recipe.html
 
carswell January 6, 2019
I haven't yet read through all the comments so here is my contribution on the topic of roasting red peppers and how many recipes make the process far more difficult than it needs to be.<br /><br />It makes me want to scream when I see recipes suggesting that you blacken peppers whole over an open flame, or broil them whole in the oven. There is nothing more irritating and time consuming than trying to peel, core and remove the seeds and pithy ribs from a now limp and cooked whole pepper. And don't even get me started on the idea of putting them into a paper bag to rest after cooking to make removing the skins easier. Talk about a way to lose all the flavourful juices and who has paper bags hanging around anyway? <br /><br />I split, core and remove the ribs from my peppers first, and then flatten them with my hand before putting them on a baking sheet under the broiler. Not too close because you want the peppers to soften before the skins are blackened. Flattening the peppers ensures more even cooking and blackening of the skins. <br /><br />When sufficiently blackened, I put them in a bowl or shallow baking dish to cool with a tea towel over the bowl to hold in the steam. Give them half an hour or so and they will be cool enough to handle and the skins will come off fairly easily. All the juices will have collected in the dish and can be added to whatever you are making with the roasted peppers. <br /><br />This process works well - and you can do a quantity of peppers easily for freezing and using at a later date.
 
ELLE January 6, 2019
Thoughts from an old lady. <br />*Newly married in 1955, I turned on the TV and watched Dione Lucas tell me I don't have to sift flour -- modern flour no longer contains nasty little creatures. She also demonstrated how to flute a mushroom, a skill I don't use.<br />*My all-time favorite cookbook is What Cooks in Suburbia by Lila Perl, published in 1961 and out of print. Its recipes produce delicious meals from breakfast to desserts. Often a cookbook will yield a single recipe: Snert from a book by Molly O'Neill; Martha Stewart's tarter sauce, but I still cook half the recipes from Lila Perl's book.<br />*Modern meats, especially beef, take less time to cook. Recently I made Boeuf Bourguignon from Julia Child's Mastering book. It was done in half the time (my oven temperatures are accurate), in fact, a little overdone.<br />*I'm seeing a lot of slow cooker recipes. I refuse to buy this gadget. I like to monitor what I cook -- taste it, stir it, smell it -- Slow cooker recipes should include instructiions on how to adapt the recipe to a standard Dutch oven.<br />*Carbs are not my friends. My weight and well-being do better without them. The soup recipe looks interesting but I don't eat bread. My meals are a combination of Paleo/Keto. New cookbooks should consider this population--I'm not alone.
 
Tom T. January 6, 2019
Loved your post. And here here, to your slow cooker comment. Way too many slow cooker recipes out there and my experience has been that more often than not, they leech all the flavor to make a wonderful broth but dead and bland solids.<br />Slow cookers are for keeping food warm at work potlucks. lol
 
Arthur J. January 6, 2019
This simple recipe has opened my mind to the use of bread as a general thickener of stews and soups. Sometimes I struggle with the question of thickening and consistency. I can't help but wonder if a more assertive bread, such as rye or pumpernickel, when added, would add something flavorful coming from an unexpected direction. I haven't tried it.
 
Shruti G. January 5, 2019
Salt as you go! Certain foods - pasta and potatoes come to mind - need to be salted from the beginning. Adding salt when you finish the dish isn't going to work.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. January 5, 2019
Thank you all so much (SO MUCH) for sharing your ideas and experiences—I can't wait to dive in to all of the great rabbit holes you've given me. I will echo cosmiccook in saying how much I love this community—I learn more from you every day, and especially when it's book time! If anything else comes to mind, please email me at [email protected] anytime, or come back here and add a comment so others can see.
 
Kelly M. January 4, 2019
Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal and Cal Peternell's 12 Recipes are books I recommend to everyone who thinks they can't cook - they are so approachable, so READABLE, and so unlike what many think of as recipe books that they don't intimidate those who have tried (and failed) to follow convoluted ingredient or prep lists. I wish I'd had resources like those when I was learning to cook fumblingly and hesitantly in my college days. The most important thing I remember looking back is, find a recipe you want to eat and make it over and over again, tasting, experimenting, figuring out what you like about it and gradually stepping away from slavishly following the recipe to start making a change here and there to suit your own tastes - more salt, less basil, add cheese, whatever. Just find something you love to eat and learn to cook it, get comfortable with it, start to trust your tastebuds and what YOU like and start taking recipes as suggestions and not rules.
 
Kelly M. January 4, 2019
Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal and Cal Peternell's 12 Recipes are books I recommend to everyone who thinks they can't cook - they are so approachable, so READABLE, and so unlike what many think of as recipe books that they don't intimidate those who have tried (and failed) to follow convoluted ingredient or prep lists. I wish I'd had resources like those when I was learning to cook fumblingly and hesitantly in my college days. The most important thing I remember looking back is, find a recipe you want to eat and make it over and over again, tasting, experimenting, figuring out what you like about it and gradually stepping away from slavishly following the recipe to start making a change here and there to suit your own tastes - more salt, less basil, add cheese, whatever. Just find something you love to eat and learn to cook it, get comfortable with it, start to trust your tastebuds and what YOU like and start taking recipes as suggestions and not rules.
 
FS January 4, 2019
Be prepared to make a mess of things, sometimes a recipe just won't work. Maybe it's a mistake in the recipe itself, or an ingredient is too old. Recently I made a no-knead bread with yeast that was just slightly over the expiration date. The bread was edible but not great.<br />Expired baking powder will ruin a recipe - guess how I know??<br />What I mean to say is, check your ingredients for freshness. And don't be too hard on yourself: even the greatest cook will sometimes mess up a dish. That's just how it goes!
 
gandalf January 4, 2019
I concur with the several posters who have mentioned the need to have sharp knives in the kitchen (and to keep them sharpened). Trying with difficulty to use a dull knife, in order to do what a sharp knife can do easily, is simply asking for trouble.<br /><br />One thing that I learned over time is this: When cooking meat in oil in a skillet on your stove top, have a paper towel on a plate next to the stove so that you can drain the meat of excess oil after cooking. When I first started cooking many years ago, many recipes that I used mentioned browning meat in a skillet; I did this but never drained the meat after cooking it in oil, so when I added additional ingredients per the recipe there was always an excess of oil/fat at the top of whatever it was that I was cooking. I gradually came to realize that draining the cooked meat of its oil/fat was a step that was implied in the recipe, and that experienced cooks would do that as a matter of course -- it didn't need to be expressly written in the recipe. Perhaps this was a function of how old the recipe was, and how experienced the person writing the recipe was (I have a cookbook from the 1950s, and one of the oft-repeated directions in it is, "Cook in the usual way"). I find it useful that many recipes of recent vintage will tell you to drain your meat cooked in oil/fat on a paper towel before using the meat further in the recipe.
 
FS January 4, 2019
You make an interesting point. Meat used to be fattier than it is now - anyone remember the 1/4 inch trim? - so maybe older recipes reflected the need to drain the fat.<br />
 
Linda January 3, 2019
I'm not a beginner cook. I was a good home cook. Then I got a job in a cooking school and my skills improved immensely. But I'm still learning things, often things I wish I'd known much earlier in my cooking life. One take away from the cooking school-trust your inner chef. Don't be afraid to cook food the way you like it. In your kitchen, you're the chef and your taste rules.<br /><br />Tom Colicchio on Top Chef is always talking about dishes needing more acid. The first time I heard him say that, I went, "What? Acid?" That was one thing the cooking school missed in their education. That tip, adding acid, changed everything. Now i have lots of different flavored vinegars in my pantry and I match them to the flavors of the dish, plus using citrus, etc., according to what would taste good with the other ingredients.<br /><br />Which leads me to Samin Nosrat's "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat"-it's a cooking course in a book. Her series on Netflix is excellent, too. She explains why chefs do things the way they do. Cook your way through it. I know you're looking for tips you can use it your book, but this one's so excllent it deserves a plug. And the main takeaway from her book goes back to what I learned in cooking school--taste. Taste. Taste. Taste everything you make at every stage of the process. Without tasting, you can't know if you've got the spices, seasonings, acids, flavors that you're looking for. If you watch cooking shows, that's the one thing every chef repeats like a broken record, if that old metaphor still makes sense.<br /><br />Get a scale. Learn to weigh in grams, (if you're American and not used to the metric system) especially when baking. Your food, but particularly baked goods will turn out much better because weighed ingredients are more consistent. Ditto for testing your oven temperature with an oven thermometer so you can get the temperature right. I learned this baking advice goes double for low-carb/keto baking with nut flours. <br /><br />My husband used to say that you can't make fresh food without taking some time and messing up some stuff. There are amazing simple dishes out there. But don't expect toss in the microwave speed leaving you with only one dish and a fork to clean if you're cooking fresh food. You'll get better and more efficient as you do it more, so have patience with the learning process.<br />
 
Andrea T. January 20, 2019
I second this - "trust your inner chef. Don't be afraid to cook food the way you like it. In your kitchen, you're the chef and your taste rules." Recipes are not rule books - if the amount of any particular ingredient strikes you as wrong - that is, not to your taste - trust your instincts.
 
SharynSowell January 3, 2019
My husband thought cooking was magic he couldn't make. But when I played for him a random comment from Lynne Rosetto Kaspar's Splendid Table podcast it gave him the encouragement to try. She said she has cooking flops often; that it's fine to try something and learn. He started with baking a potato (too intimidated to try a recipe!) and now cooks regularly, mastering skills and dishes he never believed possible. Starting simple with permission to fail is a great recipe for beginning cooks.
 
Panfusine January 3, 2019
you can make multiple variants of the same dish simply by changing one or two spices (or spice blends) keeping the main ingredient as a constant. The flavors can be so vastly different. <br />e.g: in this same recipe.. substitute with a set of whole spices used for garam masala (tied up in a muslin pouch) and the same tomato soup will taste unmistakably Indian, or a sprinkle of ras el hanout or baharat sauteed in with the onion and garlic to give it a middle eastern flavor - The caveat, make sure that the main ingredient is something used in that cuisine.. <br />
 
Eric K. January 3, 2019
Find a food writer you love reading or a chef whose food you love eating, and cook from their cookbook. A lot of my earlier years learning to cook were about finding those voices I trusted, whose recipes I knew just worked. Nigella, in my case (obviously).
 
Heidi January 3, 2019
Best cooking concept ever for home cooks: “The holding point for food”. The further along your ingredients are, the more likely you are going to “make that meal”. Examples:<br />Wash all fruits and vegetables before you put them away. When you bring home produce from store. Leave by the sink, don’t put veggies in fridge till you wash them. Then when you want to cook something, that step is done! The celery, lettuce, pepper are already clean and dry👏👏 <br />When a recipe calls for 1/4 cup onion or what ever, chop the WHOLE thing, store extra in a container or zip lock bag. Two days later, when you wonder, What’s for dinner??? You may find prepped onions and peppers in you fridge. You are on you way to a western omelet, or sausage peppers n onion, or a great chicken dish, a quick salad.<br />When a recipe calls for 2 chicken breasts, cook 4. Store 2 in fridge, tomorrow, slice up the already cooked chicken, make a fab chicken sandwich with your already washed lettuce and tomatoes. <br />Next, learn to make a basic vinaigrette. 3 part oil, one part acid (vinegar, lemon etc) Buy the XOXO 1/4 cup liquid measuring cup. Measure 3 Tbsp oil and 1Tbsp acid right in that little cup, pour in a little bowl, zip it up with a zyllis milk frothier ($10.00) season, zip it up again. Done. Vary your oil, acid and herbs n spices to suit your salad. The right amount of dressing for a salad for two. Because you have clean lettuce and chopped extra veggies in fridge, salad in 5 minutes. <br />
 
peggylouise January 3, 2019
This is not so much a cooking tip as it is a food storage tip. To quickly thaw and use frozen ground beef, try this storage method. Take your package of fresh ground beef, and if desired, divide it into 1/2 to 3/4 lb. portions. This storage tip also works with 1 lb. and larger portions of ground beef. You will need a plastic zip-lock bag for each portion of ground beef. For 1/2 to 3/4 lb. portions, I use the quart size bags. For larger amounts of ground beef, I use larger bags. Zip open the bags. Then, divide your meat into portions and place each portion into a separate bag and zip it to about 1/2 inch of being closed. Then using the palms of your hands, press down and flatten out the meat within the bag. Keep in mind that the flatter the meat, the quicker it will thaw. Last, press any remaining air out of the bag and zip the bag closed. If I divide the meat into portions, I usually stack about four of these quart-size bags together and then wrap the stack in heavy-duty foil. I use masking tape and a marker to label the foil package before I put it in the freezer. More often than not, I don't plan my meals ahead of time. So this quick-thaw frozen ground beef method has been saved me from making many special trips to the supermarket.
 
teresa January 2, 2019
Pasta e ceci is a great beginners' recipe - can be made with a few basic pantry staples, requires no special ingredients, and only takes 30 minutes start to finish with a reliably delicious payoff. <br /><br />Recipes generally stress seasoning food properly, and - while obviously important - what has most changed my cooking is adding and layering acids, primarily with vinegar. A capful of white balsamic added to roasted brussels sprouts, or a splash of red wine vinegar added at both the beginning and again to finish a stew - whenever I'm tempted to reach for another pinch of salt, I first add a small amount of acid. It usually adds the savoriness I'm missing.<br /><br />A lot of soups and stews call for homemade stock, and I get it - it's far superior to boxed stock or bouillon. That said, to ask tentative home cooks to make stock is a stretch; I cook constantly, and am hardly that prepared when I want to make soup on a weeknight. There's plenty of ways to doctor shop-bought broth - spike with tamari, miso (or fermented bean paste), acid - so it's tasty and can be used in virtually anything.