Tomato soup with orzo

This recipe is a favourite comfort food in southern Italy, Greece, and probably everywhere in Mediterranean tomato country. You could say that it's an old family recipe in the sense that I figured it out watching my aunts cook as a teenager. It's popular with the busy, the cheap, and the lazy cook as it involves very little preparation time and uses very affordable ingredients to maximum effect. Being at least two of those three kinds of cook at any given time, orzo tomato soup is a frequent feature on my dinner table.

The quantities listed here feed eight because I often feed that many with it. Somehow it became one of my signature dishes and my teenagers' friends will happily invite themselves over when it's on the menu (yes, teenagers lining up for—meatless—soup, I am not kidding you). It even made its appearance at a nodermeet a few years ago, receiving surprising acclaim. I mean, how wrong can you go with tomato soup? I'm not sure but evidently you can go very right with it sometimes.

2 lbs/1 kg of onions, chopped fine to medium
1 large (30 oz) tin of crushed tomato
1 large (30 oz) tin of tomato puree
8 oz of orzo pasta
1 cup of extra virgin olive oil
Herbs: 1 heaped tsp each basil and oregano or the fresh equivalent
Seasoning: salt, pepper to taste

Brown the onions with some of the olive oil in a large stainless steel (not Teflon and not aluminium) pot to the point of having them slightly caramelised. If you're feeding as many people as I usually am, use a stock pot. Add everything else to the pot. Bring to a boil while adding water to achieve the desired consistency (which for me is on the thick side) and leave on medium heat until the noodles are done through, stirring regularly. This is not al dente food. Give them 10-15 minutes past being done.

The really great thing about this soup is that you can go all sorts of places from this very simple base recipe without spoiling anything. Want it chunkier? Add petite diced tomato instead of crushed. Want it lighter? Use less oil or add more water. Have a basil fetish? Go ahead, pile it on—it'll live.

Two points to remember about the pasta. You must use orzo or you just have a very ordinary tomato soup with noodles in it. Orzo comes in different sizes and you may see Italian versions labelled risoni or Greek ones calling themselves manestra—nothing to do with the Italian dish of the same name—or kritharaki. I prefer the finer kind (Greek brand Stella's 'kritharaki psilo' if I can get hold of it) but in many shops you don't get a choice so any size will do.

Do not think that you put too little pasta in it. Orzo is an ideal noodle: left unchecked, it will expand to absorb all available fluid and fill all available space. This property of orzo makes it great for leftovers. Overnight it will have expanded again and you can make another complete meal by adding a bit of water. In fact, if you put in too much orzo you could find yourself doing this for two or three days as though you'd acquired some tasty but malevolent noodle cornucopia.

And here are your cooking footnotes:

  • Any onions will do. Because I cook for small children, Americans, and others who don't appreciate knock-you-dead onions, I generally use yellow ones, particularly the ones sold as 'sweet' or 'Vidalia' or 'Peruvian.' This is an onion-heavy dish and those varieties, while they do not brown and caramelise as well as others, work best for the many people who don't digest onions in bulk very well. It'll also work best for you if you have to sleep with those people afterwards.
  • Use only extra virgin olive oil. For this recipe I'd go for a slightly more golden one because you want a less intense flavour than you might with other dishes. If you have any kind of oil other than extra virgin, use it to grease your lawnmower and go buy something fit to serve to people.
  • Remember that you're working with an oil that has a comparatively low smoke point. Let the onions cook slowly and glaze before you decide whether you want to let them caramelise at all. It's not essential, just a personal preference.
  • It's okay to throw in a couple of beef-flavoured bouillon cubes if you're looking for a more broth-like and less tomatoey flavour
  • Notwithstanding its Mediterranean character, this soup does not need, and indeed should not use, either garlic or bay leaves
  • It does not matter if the onion or the orzo sticks a bit during cooking. In fact letting it do so adds a bit of fire-roasted flavour. The soup should be closely monitored during re-heating, though.

Finally, serve with bread. If you serve this dish without Real Bread with a Real Crust, such as a properly baked baguette, your hens will stop laying, your goat will eat your underwear, and small children will make the evil eye sign at you as you pass under their windows. So go buy some bread cazzo, and make sure you don't run out of it during the meal.

This soup may be served with sour cream, as North Americans and East Europeans are wont to do with an alarming number of foods. In countries where they don't regard a thing such as sour cream as a valid food item no creamers are used but, if your tastes incline to the creamier and paler, crème fraiche is permissible and effective. Garnish with parsley if you must.

Above all, enjoy.