Years ago, I had a lunchtime ritual, just about this time of year, when I found myself working downtown at the courthouse covering trials as a reporter. At lunchtime, I’d walk over to Nordstrom. Man, I miss the grandeur of that swanky, old-fashioned department store with its bustle and style. Remember the incredible gust of perfumed, warm air that hit when you pulled open the doors? Stepping inside off the snowy street felt like entering a portal into a way cooler world. I’d wander by the shoes and purses, hop the elevator to the second floor, stroll past the sharply-dressed mannequins in the “petites” section, and find my way to the lunch line in the busy Nordstrom Cafe. That’s where I could get a quick, delicious bowl of tomato soup, served with a parmesan crisp, and people-watch from a table in the corner while I ate. A thin piece of mint chocolate always came with the bill.
Recently, working in a totally different-feeling, post-pandemic downtown, that warm bowl of soup came to mind with a wash of nostalgia. And, that set me on the path of finding the recipe, which it turns out was published in the Los Angeles Times in 2003. (I am glad I got to enjoy the pleasure of eating it all those years without knowing how much cream it calls for.) The soup is, it turns out, quite cheap and easy to make. The kind of tomatoes you use is the most important thing — bright, sweet San Marzano plum tomatoes in puree are best. You can find them in most grocery stores and often in a three-pack at Costco. If you can’t find them — look for “Italian style” canned tomatoes as a substitute. It does call for ample cream, but you can leave it out and substitute additional broth if you are not into dairy or not trying to hit the exact Nordstorm Cafe note. And, though it isn’t in the official recipe, I like to add just the tiniest pinch of red pepper flakes to the initial saute. A note on the crisps: they work best with freshly grated parm — pre-grated cheese has starch on it that keeps the shreds from really sticking together when they melt.
Nordstrom Cafe-style tomato soup with Parmesan crisps
(adapted from the Los Angeles Times)
Serves 6, generously
2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
1/2 a large yellow onion, chopped
1 and 1/2 teaspoons dried basil
1 28-ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes in puree
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup heavy cream
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon thinly sliced basil leaves for garnish
For parmesan crisps:
1 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Make the soup:
Over medium heat, warm oil on the bottom of a 4- to 6- quart pot and then add onions, carrots and dried basil. Reduce heat slightly and saute 10 minutes, until carrots are softened and onions are transparent, stirring regularly to make sure nothing burns. Add broth and tomatoes. Simmer over medium-low heat for 20 minutes. You can use this time to make Parmesan crisps below. Remove from heat, allow to cool for 5 minutes. Blend with a hand blender in the pot until smooth or, working in batches, blend in a high-powered blender and then return to the pot. When soup is blended, return to the heat until just beginning to bubble. Remove from heat and stir in cream. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately with a sprinkling of fresh basil and a Parmesan crisp.
Make the crisps:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Using about 3 tablespoons per crisp, sprinkle cheese onto the baking sheet in the form of six small, well-spaced surfboard shapes, roughly 3-4 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide at their thickest part. The cheese should be about an eighth of an inch deep. Bake for 8 minutes, or until the cheese is melted together and toasted but not burned. Remove from the oven, allow to sit on the pan for five minutes, move to a paper towel-lined plate. Serve with soup.