Saturday, June 19, 2010

Mexican Soup

Last week as I was perusing the produce section of our local Whole Foods, I watched as an attractive and very smartly dressed woman wheeled over to the tomato section with her shopping list, carefully scanned the pallets of pasty orbs and selected a large pinkish tomato from the group. She held it up and with eyes squinted, scrutinized every surface of the fruit. If I was casting a Law and Order Episode, she would get the part. The intensity with which she checked for bruises and blemishes was Emmy worthy. With a satisfactory nasal exhalation she placed it in her basket, and carried on with the rest of her shopping. 

All I could think was, I sure am glad I'm not eating at her house tonight.

A few years ago some friends of mine and I were talking about food and the topic of tomatoes came up. We all agreed we loved them except for one woman. "Eww, I hate tomatoes!" "What? Why?" we all implored? "They taste like water and they're sour." she defended. "But have you ever had a real tomato?" we posed, we knew where this was going.

Our friend, born and raised in the Bronx, at that point, had never lived outside New York City whereas the rest of us were country girls. She was right. The tomatoes sold in Bronx supermarkets were pallid, waxy, flavorless rip-offs with a crunch. But come to think of it, that describes pretty much every tomato in every US grocery store from about October to July. When the US got its railroads, and consumers grew to expect out of season fruits and vegetables in their stores, tomatoes were bred to travel long distances, endure fluctuating temperatures and grow to a uniformly round and rosy shape. Flavor was their least concern. In my opinion, these are not real tomatoes and should be purchased with caution.

When cutting into a real tomato, such as a beefsteak or an heirloom, it should look like a bloody massacre on your cutting board. You should have to check you're fingers to make sure all digits are still intact. Real, ripe tomatoes from someone's garden or local farm are sweet, sultry and no two look alike. They should never be refrigerated and should be eaten as soon after picking as possible.

But even for those of us who know what a real tomato tastes like, why do we still expect a pale slice on a hamburger in December or crisp wedge on a salad in March? It has no flavor and I bet most people pick it off anyway. 

The other day I was back in Whole Foods shopping for my Mexican soup and I knew I wanted some tomato in there. I was determined to do better than the woman before me but the selection was grim. These tomatoes were trying really hard, the overhead lighting reflecting off all their good parts, but I was not fooled and decided to pass. Then I noticed little plastic boxes of multicolored tomatoes that read, taste the world's flavors, Gourmet Medley, Product of Canada. They were red, orange, yellow and black. What the hell I thought, it's worth a try.

At home I rinsed them off, said a prayer and popped one in my mouth. I might as well get sucker tattooed across my forehead. They were okay but not great. I used them anyway, no use wasting food but come August, I'm eating tomatoes like there's no tomorrow. I can't wait to get one on my plate, fleshy, sweet, and bloody, watch out Freddy Krueger, here I come.

This recipe is a riff on a soup I like to get at the restaurant Rice. I made enough for two and used chicken thighs but making a big pot with a whole chicken is best. Feel free to experiment.

Mexican Soup

3 to 4 chicken thighs with skin and bones, trim some of the skin
1 yellow onion, sliced into rounds
1 clove garlic
1 avocado, diced
1 large tomato or several small ones, diced
1 ear of corn, kernels cut off the ear
1 lime, juiced
1 tbs. cilantro, roughly chopped
1 cup cooked rice
salt + pepper

Wash and pat dry the chicken. Season with salt and pepper and brown in a pot or deep skillet. Add seven cups of water, the onion, garlic and a heaping teaspoon of salt and some black pepper and simmer covered for about an hour (longer if you have time) until the meat is falling off the bone. Remove the chicken and skim any scum or oil off the top. Let the chicken rest until it's cool enough to shred. Add the corn to the still simmering broth and cook for a few minutes until tender. Turn off the heat and add the chicken, tomato, avocado cilantro and lemon juice. Some finely chopped Serrano chili would be good too or more slices of onion. Adjust seasoning if you need to. I usually need to add a little more salt and pepper. Then put 1/2 cup of rice in your bowl and ladle the soup on top. A dash of tabasco would be good for a little kick.

For dessert I broiled a container of fresh cut pineapple from the store in my toaster oven just until the edges started to brown. It was a delicious end to the meal.

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