Tomato Cognac Soup

I am sick.  When I am sick I really only want to eat tomato soup.  I’ll eat other food as long as tomato soup is involved in the menu.   So here is another tomato soup recipe, which I served today with grilled cheese and a spinach salad with bacon, avocado, blue cheese, chives, tomato, and hard boiled egg (kind of a cobb salad without the chicken).  I made a salad dressing out of olive oil, raspberry vinegar, mango chutney, salt and pepper.  I have a very nice memory of serving almost exactly this menu to my friend Jeff Gnecco when we were first getting to know one another…so I always think of him when I eat this meal.

This recipe comes with a lot of history attached to it.  This is a tomato soup from the old Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas.  My mother owned this cookbook when I was little.  I have fond feelings toward the hippy art and the super thin brown paper that the book was printed on.  This book is filled with recipes from the first generation of vegetarianism in North America.  A generation that substituted cheese and butter for meat with wild abandon.  A generation that wanted to eat in the decadent fashion of the mid 20th century, just without meat.  In short, Anna Thomas was my kind of vegetarian.  The second generation of vegetarian cooking was much, much more health conscious and even Anna Thomas has since revised the Vegetarian Epicure to be more healthful.    I cook from the New Vegetarian Epicure too.  It is still excellent and there is more info about that book under the cookbook tab.

My mother was more of a second wave vegetarian.   My mother is naturally a VERY healthy eater.  She is not trying to deprive herself, she just happens to like very healthy food.  This innate tendency combined with the fact that she was a part of the radical movement back toward cleaner, healthier and more natural living in the 1970’s defined the cuisine of my childhood.  We ate a lot of sprouts and carrot juice and something that she called chickpea dip (which I discovered much later in college, was actually a middle eastern dish called hummus).

Sorry, but I cannot resist the chickpea dip tangent.  My college friends, most of whom were sub-urban east coasters were horrified to find out that I had never had Middle Eastern food.  There was no Middle Eastern food that I knew of on Maui, or in rural Canada where I had spent my later and earlier childhoods.  Despite the fact that I spent a lot of time reading about food and teaching myself to cook in high school, somehow falafel and hummus had never come up.  I knew what tabbouleh was, because hippies bring tabbouleh to potlucks, but other than that I had no idea.  Okay, so my college friends took me out for middle eastern food and it was so wonderful, but about halfway through the meal I realized that hummus was the chick pea dip of my childhood…a food that we ate so much of that I have distinct memory of me and my mother’s boyfriend both refusing to eat it anymore.  I now know, that hippy cuisine is a mash up of middle eastern and macrobiotic (Japanese food) with vegetarian dishes from around the globe thrown in for good measure.

Okay, back to the original Vegetarian Epicure.  In general, I was under whelmed by my mother’s style of cooking.  I did not inherit her penchant for healthy food.  I liked eating at my grandparents’ houses where I was fed meat, pies, butter, pickle sandwiches, apple cake, marmalade, scones…. you get the idea.  Every once in a while though, my mother would decide to cook something from her copy of the Vegetarian Epicure.  I loved it when this happened.  For one thing, cooking from the old Vegetarian Epicure often took all day.  The recipes were complicated.  We had to go seek out exciting ingredients (I have always liked grocery shopping).  I could hang out with my mum in the kitchen and she would need my help!  The things that we did in the kitchen were alchemical and mysterious and thrilling!  Last, but not least, I loved this kind of food…. giant baked peirogies filled with potatoes and cheese served with yogurt, cucumber and dill salad…fresh bread with sweet onions and sharp cheese…creamy tomato soup.

I am pretty sure that my mother only made this soup once and declared it too creamy.  I am positive that she left the cognac out (she didn’t keep any booze around).  We also used fresh tomatoes instead tomato paste (I distinctly remember the seeds).  Nonetheless, this creamy tomato soup haunted me for years.    I would have been about seven when she made that soup and she did not bring that cookbook with us when we moved to Hawaii two years later…. but at age eighteen when I came across the Vegetarian Epicure in a used bookstore my heart raced and I thought “That is the book that THE tomato soup came from”.  This ladies and Gentleman is THE tomato soup.


  • 1 quart good home-made stock
  • 1teaspoon dry basil
  • 12 oz good quality tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup cognac
  • 1 cup light cream
  • 1/4 cup condensed milk
  • 2 Tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 cup flour (gluten free is fine)
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • Black pepper to taste
  • Celery salt to taste (this is my addition)
  • Smoked Hot Spanish Paprika to taste (this is my addition)
  • Celery leaves for garnish (also my addition)
  1. Heat the stock in a large saucepan.
  2. Add the dry basil, tomato paste, cognac, light cream and condensed milk.  Stir to combine and simmer for a while.
  3. Add the brown sugar, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce.  Stir to combine and turn the heat very low.
  4. In another large saucepan, melt the butter over medium high heat.  Add the flour and stir vigorously to combine, scraping the bottom of the pan frequently.  Allow the roux to develop a golden color but do not let it brown.
  5. Add the soup to the roux gradually, while whisking to prevent lumps.  I find that it helps to have a friend give you a hand with this part.
  6. Taste and adjust the seasoning with black pepper and celery salt.
  7. Serve it very hot, with grilled cheese.

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Katherine says:

    I remember the day you made this when Jeff was there! It was his birthday and we all ate Jeff’s Birthday Cake afterward. Old friends of the Gnecco family, Christopher and Sheila Spalding, were in town (they had stayed in a monastery somewhere uptown!) and stopped in briefly and then took cake with them on the plane.

    Jeff’s birthday cake is this amazingly tasty chocolate sheet cake with cinnamon in it. It is frosted when still warm, so it comes out almost like fudge. If I had more time on my hands, I would post the recipe…someday!

  2. Rima Fand says:

    I love these stories. So glad I’m a subscriber at last!

    And that soup sounds amazing.


  3. I remember Jeff’s birthday cake! It is good!

  4. Silvi says:

    Sometimes when the vetetarians I know cook out of 2nd wave veggie cook books, they disregard the tiny amounts of butter and oil and just add more.

  5. That seems like a very sensible solution!

  6. Glenda Berry says:

    I am proud to see that my very basic healthy eating habits have helped inspire you to become the fabulous, creative and adventurous cook you are today. Thanks for sharing these memories of us cooking together. This post warmed my heart on a rainy dark thunder-stormy day!

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