“That tomato soup was outstanding!”

My client had come home late from work, heated up the Italian tomato soup I’d made her, and fallen in love.

“Please make this for me again!”

Her enthusiasm was understandable. It’s a fantastic soup: A deeply flavorful broth is coaxed from San Marzano tomatoes and red wine, loaded with onions, carrots, fennel and garlic, then thickened with half a loaf of artisan bread. It’s healthful (rich in lycopene, antioxidants, folate and vitamins A and C), chunky and comforting.

And oh, so much more than soup.

I can’t remember when I stumbled on the first variation. But the husband was traveling, the children were hungry, and “soup” didn’t quite seem hearty enough for dinner. As I heated the Italian tomato soup, I was struck by how much it resembled a chunky marinara.

Why not use it that way? After all, I’m the queen of playing with my food. I boiled some pasta, tossed the noodles with a touch of olive oil and spooned on the, uh, “sauce.”

“This is the best spaghetti sauce ever!” the little boy cried.

And it was.

Is it soup, sauce or a condiment? It's up to you! Just a few changes will turn this one tomato soup recipe into three meals.
Is it a soup, a sauce or a condiment? The choice is up to you! Just a few changes will turn this one tomato soup recipe into three very different  meals.

The second variation came to me just a few days ago. Eating a bowl of the tomato soup while absently flipping through a cookbook, I came across a recipe for fennel, orange and black olive salad. Suddenly, I started imagining grated orange zest and chopped kalamatas on top of my soup. What a fantastic topping for gently baked cod! Quickly, I found some oranges and olives and added them to my, uh, “condiment.” The olives lent meatiness and heft; the orange zest a bright, acidic pop. Voila! A new dish was created!

Here, I share the basic soup recipe with you, courtesy of Ina Garten’s Back To Basics cookbook. It’s a simple soup, with few ingredients, so be sure to use the best you can find. Good bread, San Marzano tomatoes and organic vegetables and stock will yield the best, most satisfying flavor … regardless of which dish you serve!

Pappa al Pomodoro (adapted from Ina Garten’s Back To Basics cookbook)

This makes about 10 cups of soup. If you halve the recipe, cut the onion amount in half but use 2 carrots and 1 fennel bulb. Vegetarians can substitute water for the chicken broth; vegans and those who keep kosher can omit the Parmesan cheese.

Finely chop 2 medium yellow onions (or 1 large), 1 fennel bulb, 3 peeled carrots and 4 cloves of garlic. Pour 1/2 cup olive oil in a pot and heat over medium heat. Add the vegetables, season with salt and pepper, and saute until the onion is translucent and the carrots and fennel begin to soften (about 10 minutes).

Meanwhile, tear a good French baguette into 1-inch pieces until you have 3 cups. (Do not cut off the crusts.) When the vegetables are tender, add the bread to the pot and saute for 3 to 5  minutes.

Open 2 28-ounce cans of San Marzano Italian plum tomatoes, preferably with basil. Place them in the bowl of a food processor and roughly chop them, OR, using kitchen shears, roughly cut them while they’re still in the can. Add them to the soup pot, along with 1/2 cup dry red wine and 4 cups of chicken broth. Bring the soup to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer it, partially covered, for 40-45 minutes.

Turn the heat off. Cool the soup slightly, then whisk vigorously until the bread cubes have dissolved and the tomatoes further loosen. Add 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Taste, adding salt, pepper and more Parmesan according to your tastes. Use in any of three ways … soup or pasta sauce; or pull out a bit, grate some orange zest and chopped kalamatas over, and place atop baked fish. The soup keeps in the refrigerator for three days; it also freezes beautifully.