Comfort foods are funny. Everyone has their own particular favorites and they really can perform miracles, lifting moods and brightening days. But there’s no reasoning with what each of us considers comforting. I, for one, do not care for tomato soup. It’s just not my thing. I’m reminded of bowls of marinara and much prefer “stuff” in my soups. Add a grilled cheese and I’ll eat the sandwich but leave the soup. It’s always been that way. Chicken noodle, now that’s another story. For my mother, however, tomato soup makes her happy. I once flew home to take care of her, post surgery, and that’s what she wanted. So I delivered. There are times when you put aside your preferences to please those you love. But I draw the line at meatloaf. That will never happen.
If I was going to make her tomato soup, it was going to be good. Fortunately my mother tends to accumulate large stacks of cooking magazines which came in handy during the long intervals when the patient spent most of her recovery dozing. Flipping through one (after some online sleuthing, I’ve determined it was Fine Cooking), I found a recipe for a classic tomato soup that made sense. It started with a can of tomatoes, added good pantry ingredients, and just seemed logical. Fine Cooking is like that. I made that soup three times during my stay, even freezing a batch for her before I left. One was as written, in another I added a little sour cream and dill and in another I think I added some chorizo and gave it a Mexican spin. For not liking tomato soup, even I thought it was pretty good and had a bowl or two. My mother, with her knee propped up on 14 ice packs was happy and that’s really all that mattered.
This is a recipe I often teach to beginner cooks because it’s simple, versatile and builds confidence. It’s ridiculously easy to make and can be customized anyway you like. I particularly like the silkiness a little cream adds but you can leave that out. Vary the herbs – switch out, increase, decrease. Think thyme, tarragon, dill, basil, rosemary or chives. Stir in a swirl of sour cream or crème frâiche. Puree in a little chipotle en adobo and garnish with tortilla chips, Mexican crema and sliced scallions. Add some shredded chicken, a few shrimp, leftover steak or what have you. Serve with a grilled cheese sandwich for that classic combo, or better yet, make grilled cheese croutons if only because they make it really, really good.
Grilled Cheese Croutons turn a simple soup into something special and they’re damn cute. It’s an idea I readily admit I pinched from a former employer. The thyme butter adds a lovely flavor and it’s important to use a flavorful cheese like a good quality sharp cheddar to hold up against the soup. The other secret is to seek out a really annoying bread – Pepperidge Farm Very Thin Bread. Really; that’s what it’s called. Back in the ‘70’s, they marketed this as “Diet Bread” and it was used for all kinds of silly hors d’oeuvres that involved rolling the thin bread thinner, spread with something salty and delicious then rolled back up, buttered and baked. This essentially negated anything that was once diet about the bread but dang, they were tasty.
Anyway, I digress. This special bread is very thin – about ¼” – and makes a rather interesting grilled cheese sandwich in which the bread and cheese are of equal thickness. I like that. Cut into cubes, proportionally they make fantastic croutons. If you can’t find it or don’t want to make a special purchase, that’s OK. Regular bread works just fine, the croutons will just be larger.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: BIG SMILES. We’re at that weird time of the year in Chicago – it’s rainy, no it’s sunny, no wait it’s going to snow on Friday. This constant back and forth and coat switching depresses us all so what better to make it through this gloom than a nice bowl of soup with silly fancy little cheesy croutons? I thought so. It makes people happy.
CREAMY TOMATO SOUP WITH GRILLED CHEESE CROUTONS - based on this recipe
Serves 4, makes about 8 cups
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large onion, diced
1 garlic clove, diced
2 Tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
3 cups chicken stock, low salt
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 ½ teaspoons sugar
1 sprig of fresh thyme (or ¼ teaspoon dried)
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ cup heavy cream
- In a medium saucepan over medium heat, sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil and butter until soft and translucent.
- Add the flour and stir to coat; cook for 1-2 minutes to cook off the “flour-y” taste.
- Add chicken stock, tomatoes, sugar, thyme, salt and pepper and simmer covered for 40 minutes.
- Taste for seasoning and adjust salt and pepper if needed.
- Puree in a blender, food processor or with an immersion blender until desired consistency. I prefer using an immersion blender because it’s so much easier in this situation, but if you’re using a blender or food processor, puree in batches.
- Blend in the heavy cream and if needed, heat until warmed through.
- Serve hot with grilled cheese croutons.
- Soup freezers beautifully, without the croutons of course.
GRILLED CHEESE CROUTONS:
¼ cup unsalted butter, softened
½ teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
6 thin slices of white bread, crusts removed
3 ounces Cheddar, thinly sliced
- In a small bowl, combine the butter and thyme.
- Spread one side of each bread slice with the butter mixture.
- Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat.
- Place 3 slices of bread in the pan, buttered side down.
- Top with the cheese, then with the remaining 3 bread slices, buttered side up.
- Cook, turning once, until toasted on both sides, 3-5 minutes per side, lightly pressing down to compress the sandwiches.
- When crispy, golden and melty, remove the sandwiches from the pan. Let them cool slightly, then cut into 1” squares.