Weather as of late can be, well, can we just say it? The weather is WEIRD.
One day it’s below freezing and I’m chipping ice off my windshield, and 36 hours later, I find crocuses in bloom, and am outside in flip flops. Global warming or not, this winter – and the last couple as well – have been roller coasters of atmospheric events, making “real winter” (as my husband calls it) distant memories of childhood, nostalgic, almost Rockwellian times, when kids stayed home from school frequently, there was much sledding to do, and a pot of tomato soup was always on the stove, ready to warm mittened hands and frostbitten noses.
The downfall for those Zone 7-ers like us – or is it? – is that no one told our food it wasn’t winter! One of the great joys of living in a temperate zone of agriculture like ours (take that, California!) is the diversity of food year-round. Summer serves us up a gluttonous volume of produce, which us resourceful folks like to preserve for the long, lean months ahead as our ancestors did – but mostly for taste now, not sustenance per se. Fall comes smelling of apples and crisp brown leaves, and heaping mounds of thick-skinned squashes, pungent garlic, and potatoes for miles, great stuff that lasts for months. And right about this time of year, maybe March in a more ‘normal’ winter, we’re scraping the bottom of our potato barrels, the last of the butternut went into the oven last night, and boy wouldn’t a fresh lettuce salad and charred asparagus taste amazing right about now? Spring can’t come soon enough, bringing with it vibrant green things, funky little mushrooms, the first rhubarb and asparagus poking through the soil, and explosions of color on lawns.
So, while it may feel like spring already, and the crocus have carpeted the farm, and my hyacinths are making appearances, we have to acknowledge that this food, our farm food, is still working on an intrinsic cycle. Sticking with it, through freak weather or not, is part and parcel of the locavore, seasonal eating experience, and one we should be thankful for and honor through our judicious use of whatever produce we have still creeping around in our crisper drawer.
In that spirit, I offer you a hearty rendition of my favorite tomato soup. Use up your canned tomatoes and sauce from last summer, and give remembrance to more bountiful weeks. Beef it out with that last lingering winter squash, and of course, make it a meal with yummy chunks of beef. For those few cold snaps we have remaining in this winter season (believe me, they are coming!), it will warm your gut and remind you that “real spring” is right around the corner.
Late Winter Tomato Butternut Soup
Serves a family of hungry travelers for days…
- ¼ c. canola oil
- 2 lbs. beef bottom round or chuck roast, cut into 2 large pieces
- ½ lb. beef marrow bones, or oxtail bones
- 3 small onions, peeled and chopped
- ½ c. celery, chopped
- ½ c. carrots, chopped
- ¼ c. tomato paste
- 3 whole garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
- 1 c. dry white wine (optional)
- 1 bay leaf
- 10 whole peppercorns
- 4 qts. chicken stock, preferably homemade
- 1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut in 1 inch cubes
- 2 (28 oz.) cans whole plum tomatoes, or 2 qts. homemade crushed tomatoes
- 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
- In a large Dutch oven or pot, heat the oil on medium high heat. Season the meat on all sides generously with salt and ground black pepper. Sear the meat, one piece at a time, on all sides until deeply browned; set aside.
- Add bones to hot pot, and stir until beginning to brown; remove and set aside.
- Add onions, celery, and carrot to hot oil, stirring, and cook until onion is turning translucent, about 4 minutes. Stir in tomato paste, and cook another 2 minutes, until it turns a rusty color. Add garlic and wine, stirring to release brown bits from the bottom, and cook until wine reduces by half, about 3 minutes longer.
- Add bay leaf, peppercorns, stock, squash, and tomatoes to the pot, and bring to a boil. Return the beef and bones to the pot as well. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook until the beef is meltingly tender, about 3-4 hours. Skim fat off the surface occasionally as it cooks.
- Carefully remove beef, bones and bay leaf from the pot; discard bones and leaf. In batches, puree the soup in a blender, and return to the pot. Whisk in the softened cream cheese until fully melted. Shred the beef into spoon-size chunks, and stir into the pot. Serve hot, with crusty bread for mopping up every last drop.