Sunday, April 20, 2014

Creamy Tomato Soup with Croutons

Do you use your cookbooks much? I've come into several interesting cookbooks in the last few months- some are gifts and some are review copies. I read them like novels from cover to cover as soon as they fall into my hands, but somehow never get around to cooking from them. When it comes to looking for a recipe, I seem to reflexively start typing search terms into a web browser rather than hitting up the cookbooks.

So I went through my recently acquired cookbooks and bookmarked (I mean, actually bookmarked with little bits of paper- imagine that) a few interesting recipes to try. The hits will find their way to the blog, of course.

Today's recipe comes from a book called Copykat.com's Dining Out At Home Cookbook 2: More Recipes for the Most Delicious Dishes from America's Most Popular Restaurants by Stephanie Manley.

Manley has been posting recipes on her website copykat.com since 1995- that's positively historic in Internet years, isn't it? In the introduction to the cookbook, she says that the website started as a way to store family recipes and capture food memories, like the one of eating her grandmother's sauerkraut: "Her sauerkraut was homemade, meaning she made it from cabbage, salt and time".

Manley's "thing" is to replicate recipes from restaurants. I can so relate to this. I love eating out- always have. As a teenager I ate my way through all the iconic foodie addas of Bombay. Cooking for myself (and later for myself and my small family) in the US, eating out is a more or less weekly break from the routine. And restaurant meals are my biggest source of inspiration to try new ingredients, flavors and techniques in my home kitchen.

In all three states we've lived in, in the US, we tend to seek out small local places rather than the chain restaurants. This doesn't have a whole lot to do with snobbery. It is more that chain restaurants seem to have precious little in the way of meatless options. We have better luck with the family run "ethnic" restaurants- Thai, Mexican, Ethiopian- and some of the eclectic local ones like vegetarian diners. When I have the option of supporting a local business, I'll choose that any day. But I do realize that in vast swatches of the US, fast food and chain restaurants are sadly the only choices for eating out.

So it was astonishing to look through the restaurants covered in this cookbook and realize that after 15 years in this country, I haven't stepped foot even once at any of the "big" chains like Chili's, Dairy Queen, The Cheesecake Factory, Olive Garden or T.G.I Friday's. I've never had a drink from Starbucks- surely the only person in North America not to have chugged a whatchamacallit. My experience with fast food and casual dining is woefully limited. When I am someplace with only fast food choices, I try to find one of two places. Either a Subway- they have a veggie patty which I load with veggies (lots of spinach, never lettuce), and smother in southwest dressing and it is OK. Or a Chipotle, where I get the crispy tacos and the hottest salsa they have, which is pretty hot. I've eaten a Taco Bell veggie burrito at some airport once. And on rare trips to the mall in St. Louis, we would grab lunch at California Pizza Kitchen- they had a decent white bean hummus. In St. Louis, we lived a few blocks away from a Qdoba and I liked their taco salad every now and then. It is served in a huge crispy shell, so what's not to love? And of course there was also a St. Louis Bread Company nearby. That's a chain that started in St. Louis and everywhere else, they're called Panera Bread but in STL, they kept the original name. Here in town, I took my parents to an IHOP once and can't say I was impressed by anything other than the massive portion sizes.

Chain restaurants are as popular as they are because they are quick and convenient. They use the power of salt, sugar and fat to make food as appealing to as many people as possible. And these menus often have eye-popping items that are just way over the top: there's a Katz's Deli cheesecake shake included in the book where you blend a slice of cheesecake and vanilla ice cream into a shake. Who comes up with this stuff? The point is, if you can find a way to make a restaurant favorite at home, using fresh and whole ingredients as much as possible, that can only be a good thing and a welcome addition to the meal rotation.

Manley's copykat cookbook is simply written- there are no pictures, only text recipes. Recipes are well-written and easy to follow. The format is tidy, covering all courses of the meal, and there are helpful icons to indicate recipes that are make-ahead, for instance, or good for game day. There's a section for favorites like Red Lobster's Cheddar Bay biscuits- even I've heard of those. Manley tries to use "real" ingredients as much as possible but she's a fan of these restaurants and she's replicating recipes as closely as possible, not judging them or making healthy versions of them.

Overall, this is a very fun cookbook. Among the recipes I've bookmarked to try: TGI Friday's Mediterranean hummus with a bruschetta topping, Benihana's fried rice, Olive Garden's salad dressing and a strawberry shortcake. The one I tried this afternoon is Creamy Tomato Soup, a copykat of the one at Panera Bread.

I distinctly remember eating this soup for a quick lunch at Panera Bread (well, it was called St. Louis Bread Company) while walking back from the library with infant Lila strapped to my chest, one of her first outings into the world. It is a very rich and comforting soup and Manley's fool-proof recipe got the flavor just right for me. If you've in the mood to make a thick and rich restaurant-style tomato soup at home, this one is worth a try. Last time Lila was too young to taste the soup; today she happily ate two bowls of it.

Creamy Tomato Soup
(In the style of the creamy tomato soup at Panera Bread; 
recipe adapted from Copykat.com's Dining Out At Home Cookbook 2 by Stephanie Manley)

1. Heat 2 tbsp. butter in a large pot.
2. Saute 1 medium chopped onion and 3-4 cloves garlic, stirring so that garlic does not burn.
3. When the onion is translucent, add 2 tbsp. flour and stir for a couple of minutes.
4. Add 1/2 cup whole milk and stir until the mixture thickens.
5. Add 1/2 cup cream, a pinch of baking soda, 2 tsp. sugar, 1 tsp. salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste, 1/2 tsp. dried basil and 1/2 tsp. dried oregano.
6. Add 1 28-oz can of tomatoes (I used unsalted peeled whole tomatoes).
7. Use an immersion blender to blend the soup to a smooth consistency.
8. Simmer on low heat for 15 minutes. 

Note: You could add 1 cup half and half instead of 1/2 cup each of milk and cream.

I served the soup with croutons made simply by tossing cubes of stale bread in olive oil and oven-toasting for 10-15 minutes at 300F until crisp.

Are you a fan of chain restaurants? What restaurant recipes would you most like to replicate?

Disclaimer: I was sent a review copy of Copykat.com's Dining Out At Home Cookbook 2 by the publisher, Ulysses Press. I received no monetary compensation and all opinions expressed in this review are my own.

40 comments:

  1. Its funny you mention Qdoba. Its just a couple of blocks from my house and the only fast food chain I visit these days. I have tried almost all of the chains you mention and you are absolutely right. The meal is hardly satisfying and overloaded with all the bad for you stuff. But I guess people like the familiarity which might explain why people still eat at chains even when travelling.

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    1. The taco salad is the only thing I've had from the Odoba menu but man it was good (once in a while). Not something I could replicate at home either because I'm not about to deep fry that huge shell!

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  2. I was in the US for a whole of 9 months and I have eaten in all of those chain restaurants that you have not stepped into. LOL. But I hear you. I was forced to eat in all those places as I was travelling as part of a team that worked and ate together, and I was more or less on lettuce and cheesecake diet as I was the only ovo-vegetarian in the group!

    I am a Keralite at heart, but I love reciprocating Tamil restaurant style dishes the daily regular affairs as well as the spicy chettinad ones (I substitute mushroom/egg/paneer in their non-veg recipes). Somehow the restaurant style paneer/roti items don't appeal to me anymore but I can have Tamil dishes anytime of the day! Maybe its a phase...

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    1. So you've had the whole experience! See, I rarely travel, and have always lived in places with an abundance of good local places so that's totally the reason I could stay away from the chain restaurants. Ooh I'm totally with you on replicating regional Indian restaurant dishes. If only I could perfect that Udipi sambar I'm always craving.

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  3. When I was in US I had been to most of the chain restaurants you have mentioned, Olive garden, Chili’s, TGIF, Ihop, etc. May be that’s the way my friends over there thought of showing me US :) though I have fading memories of them I just recollect the sizzling chicken for TGIF and that’s not for the chicken but for the mashed potatoes along with it. I loved it so much that I visited TGIF in Mumbai and Pune just for that. Not only that dish does not exist in menu but, they do not have mashed potatoes as a side dish in any of their dishes.. alas.. as it is the cost of TGIF India is too high, not worth and not advisable at all.
    I would love to get that mashed potatoes recipes.

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    1. I'm sorry your friends did not take you out to more interesting places! Although I guess chain restaurants is a kind of cultural experience too. I had no idea TGIF has opened in India, BTW.

      Have you ever made mashed potatoes at home? Turns out great. Bet TGIF serves something crazy like this: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/paula-deen/loaded-mashed-potatoes-recipe.html

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  4. Nupur, how many medium sized tomatoes would be there in a 28 oz can? Want to try this for my mom.

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  5. The only "chain restaurant" foods I thoroughly enjoy are the vegetarian burrito bowl from Chipotle and the house salad from Olive Garden. Lip smackin' good :-)
    I've never been to IHOP but my sister has, and she says it was beyond awful. The pancakes were huge and tasteless, in her words.
    I think Starbucks is massively overrated. I mean, sure, their vanilla bean frappe is yum, but that's an occasional treat. I can brew much better cappuccinos and Americanos at home.

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    1. Got to agree with your sis- IHOP was beyond awful. The hash browns tasted of freezer- enough said. But they serve a big meaty breakfast which my Dad loved.

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  6. Actually, I find that the food I cook at home is superior to almost anything served at a restaurant. There is a certain sense of nourishment and satisfaction that accompanies almost every home cooked meal. Cannot find that at a restaurant, I feel... Not even the most superlative ones. That being said, the husband and I enjoy the occasional plate of chaat, Indian-Chinese dishes, Thai curries, etc. at local joints. Willy's Tex-Mex serves up a nice burrito, so also Chipotle. Starbucks is an occasional treat too. Not the coffee, though (I find it intimidating to order one of those - SO many options). I stick to hot chocolate variants.

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    1. You're right- once you get to be a decent cook, it is not difficult to beat what most restaurants have to offer. But I will always love eating out- there's plenty of stuff I'd rather not make at home, and once in a while it is so nice to have someone else make the meal. Ooh I wish I had someplace here that served chaat or Indian Chinese.

      My husband likes Willy's tex mex, I much prefer Chipotle, we're always arguing about it ;)

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    2. Global Mall is our favorite place for chaat and Indian-Chinese. http://amsglobalmall.com/ is the site. Let me know if you guys plan a visit sometime... :)

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    3. Nupur, you just have to come visit us soon! There are quite a few options for both Chaat and amazing Indo-Chinese here. And just as recent as last week, a new cafe serving Mumbai street food and paan.

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    4. Oh man you guys- I love the little town I'm in but I miss having lots of good restaurants around!

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  7. I have hardly eaten at any of these chain restaurants in the past 5 years. Starbucks's mocha frappe used to be one of my fav concoctions until I started reading up on the food industry. I don't think of myself as a food snob, I'm just better informed now and yes, Starbucks is a thing of the past :)
    I do think it's challenging to find decent places when we take a road trip, I try to carry food but, you can't carry enough for every meal. It is especially challenging if you're a vegetarian. I'm not one but, I eat like one when I eat out. If you're vegan, you're options are even limited. Fast food is pretty much the only thing you can get along America's highways.

    I would love to replicate restaurant style fried rice. No matter which recipe I try, it never tastes like a restaurant. There's a Thai chain here in Houston called Anothai and I love their version.

    -Anu

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    1. Anu- You said it exactly right- once you know just a little bit about how this particular industry works, you kinda lose your appetite. And yes, eating well while traveling (whether on the road or through airports) is a big challenge.

      I've heard that the secret to restaurant style rice is cold rice, a very hot wok (and it is hard to get it that hot in home kitchens- have you seen those huge burners in restaurant kitchens) and lots and lots of oil.

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    2. Hmm, will try..thanks for the tips! My husband is very good at figuring out ingredients by taste and he thinks this particular version has butter..lots and lots of it :)

      -Anu

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    3. Anu- your husband is right! The recipe for Benihana fried rice calls for lots of garlic butter.

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  8. Nupur, I am excited and will watch this space for more copycat recipes. Just like you I occasionally enjoy veggie patty from subway and a burrito from chipotle. My three year old loves the broccoli cheddar soup from panera and I tried making this soup from the website you mention in this post; the taste was very very close. I would love to recreate the veggie gumbo from qdoba (less salty though), attempts at which have failed every time. Not even sure if they serve it any more.
    Uma

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    1. This cookbook actually has a recipe for the broccoli cheddar soup from Panera! It calls for velveeta (processed cheese) of course. I don't think I ever tried the gumbo at Qdoba.

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  9. I haven't eaten very widely at fast food chains but here are a few things I enjoy eating: the broccoli cheddar soup and Mediterranean veggie sandwich at panera,
    The veggie delite sandwich stuffed with everything on the counter plus honey mustard, French fries from Mcdonalds ( only like them if they are hot) and the regular iced coffee with milk and half sugar from Starbucks, or their dopio espresso macchiato ( although this is overpriced in my opinion).
    I love the asiago cheese bagels from Au Bon pain but have given them up because they are too unhealthy.
    We have too many good independent restaurants around where we live to eat too often at chains- lucky us!
    Arpita.
    I crave at lot of the foods back in my hometown but rarely do so here.

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    1. Arpita- the broccoli cheddar soup from Panera is easy to replicate at home if ever you're inclined to do so- the secret being melting American cheese (velveeta). Like you, I have many great independent restaurants nearby- and there are many I've yet to discover.

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  10. We don't eat out often - occasionally we find ourselves in a mall and try to avoid the dire offerings but sometimes the food makes me weep because it is souless. I am lucky to live in an area full of interesting cafes and mostly encounter the chains at malls or airports. I only had an excellent burger at Burger King but that was years ago and still live in hope of encountering it again but I think I am dreaming. I can't say I have meals I particularly want to replicate from restaurants - the reason I eat out is to try something I would never make at home.

    However the tomato soup looks like great comfort food - and it is great to use your cookbooks - I too read my new recipe books avidly and then go to the search bar - occasionally I use Eat Your Books where I have my books and can search the indexed books with a search bar

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    1. I love reading about your outings on your blog and all the great food you encounter at fairs and outdoor markets! Burger King here serves the frozen Morningstar burgers, I think. Eat Your books sounds useful to be able to search through one's cookbooks!

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  11. We do go to Panera occasionally as it's in our mall and has halfway decent food. Like their soup bread bowls.I love Indian and Thai restaurants, don't really enjoy other restaurants much. We have a local coffee chain called The Java House and I do love their cafe mocha, although lately I just drink black coffee (due to the calories!) When we were students, we'd go to Subway. For some reason, my kids think McDonald's is the pinnacle of gourmet cooking! (But we never go there.)

    Funny, just this Sunday, I dusted off my Veganomics and Yoga Kitchen cookbooks and decided to actually use them soon! A friend gave me a book called Modern Spice by Monica Bhide too.

    Love, R

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    1. Ooh I hope you have fun trying new recipes from your cookbooks- I've heard very good things about both veganomics and modern spice. I love the coconut macaroon recipe from modern spice but you're probably intending to cook real food and not sweet treats ;)

      I can't drink black coffee or tea- too bitter and astringent for me. Will be drinking my chai with milk and sugar forever.

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  12. I think I have visited every single chain you mentioned and then some more! I almost cringe saying this now because my food tastes have changed in the last couple of years and we think back at how much we used to like IHOP's pancakes and how we find them too greasy now. I agree with one of the commentors about TGIF's mashed potatoes. So yum! We do still go to TGIFs because the environment is casual and it is one of our closest restaurants.
    One of the first copy cat recipes I made was Olive Garden's Minestrone soup. I feel like intorder to exactly copy restaurant recipes you have to dump huge amounts of butter and oil, that I have stopped trying to copy recipes anymore.
    But you soup looks delish and healthy!

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    1. Food tastes do change and thank goodness for that! This soup is totally worth a try. I've made tomato soup so many times but this one nails it. The minestrone soup sounds good too- you can load that one up with veggies!

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  13. My husband and I as a rule have stopped eating at chain restaurants. It is shocking to know how even a simple soup can be so healthy (because of the sodium). We prefer the independent restaurants (can support small businesses as well) and are always trying new places and cuisines.The soup looks yummy!! will have to try it

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    1. If you try this recipe, I hope you enjoy it!

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  14. It's definitely soup weather here in Melbourne as it is getting chilly day by day. My go-to recipes for soup are: a simple mushroom soup or tom yum soup or mixed veg soup. This soup sounds wonderful and I have all the ingredients in my pantry (including cream!), so I'm making it soon. I've always wanted to make tomato soup - they used to have a sweetish tomato soup in Bangalore restaurants, where they served it as part of North Indian thalis. I'm sure they too used the power of salt, sugar and fat (loved when you wrote this) to make it delectable. I know its crazy, but sometimes there are lots of memories associated with food that make us yearn for weird things sometimes.

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    1. Ooh tom yum soup sounds delicious- I've never made that at home. I remember the sweetish tomato soup from restaurants. Tomato does benefit from some sweetness to cut the acidity. Food memories are powerful indeed!

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  15. I am with you when it comes to trying out local restaurants and coffee shops. We almost never eat out in chain restaurants (except starbucks..more on it later!). One of the main reasons being I somehow find their food on the saltier side. I am not sure if its just me or if their food is actually salty. And as you said, being a vegetarian I am limited for choice in those restaurants.
    Now, you have seriously not been to starbucks ever?! Not that I am a big fan of starbucks (I dig peets coffee), but there was a time when me and my husband used to call starbucks our second home ;) Back when we were "just friends" we used to spend hours at starbucks drinking coffee and hanging out and talking. Coffee shops (and starbucks) in particular have a big role to play that we got together :D. Now that we have found a very good local coffee shop in our area, we mostly go there, but we still do visit starbucks for old times' sake..lol!
    I am not much into cooking books...I never manage to cooking any recipe and they just make me hungry! For the first time ever, last month I purchased "oh she glows cookbook" as I love her blog by the same name. Its a vegetarian cookbook and I am already going nuts bookmarking all the recipes I want to try.

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    1. Aww- starbucks has some sweet associations for you, then :) I requested that my library buy the "oh she glows" cookbook- saw a review on some blog and the recipes sounded really good.

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  16. Nupur, its like you read my mind :) I have been craving Panera's tomato soup for a while now and can't wait to try this recipe!
    Cheers!

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    1. Bala- if you try it, let me know if you thought it compared to the one from Panera!

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  17. A new soup recipe to try, will let you know how it turns. I mostly go to chain restaurants with friends and family, and have tried a few local restaurants. This weekend on road trip to smoky, tried local restaurants for lunch, and they indeed are much better in food freshness, variety! Have been thinking of trying Panera Bread veggie Sandwiches/Panini !

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  18. Hi Nupur
    Tried the soup yesterday- it was delicious. Its really cold in Auckland NZ at the moment so the soup really hit the spot. Many thanks. Regards Priya

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    1. Thanks for the feedback Priya and I am so glad the recipe worked for you!

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