It’s funny, you know, when I talk about these “classic homey foods,” these “best childhood memory meals,” as I must confess that they’re not mine. We ate grilled cheese, but never tomato soup; we loved mac-and-cheese, but all I ever wanted was (of course) Kraft. I believe I had Campbell’s tomato soup a few times at friends’ houses, but never thought it was anything to write home about, as well as more than my share of tomato bisques at restaurants, but too often they reminded me of pasta sauces, excessive at even a cup at a time. But, with times as appropriate as this long, wet winter ahead and sources as good as, yet again, The America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook, this seems as good as a time as any to start making our own, because these recipes are keepers.
This time, Cook’s Illustrated crew was searching for “a perfectly smooth soup with rich color and great tomato flavor” and I enthusiastically applaud their efforts. This soup is fantastically rich in flavor, a whole lot more than you’d expect from your typical puddle of orange. More impressive is how they coaxed that flavor from something as everyday as canned tomatoes. The roasting step brings out their boldest intent, and the caramelizing of the shallots in the butter is reminiscent of the dreamy base of French onion soup. You use nearly every part of those canned tomatoes, which I love, because why dump that liquid carted over here from San Marzano? It’s the least you owe your food miles. I’m sure tomato soups can be made with far fewer steps – and admit to tossing the directions to the wind in step three – but I doubt they’re as layered in complexity as this deceivingly simple-looking one.
Now, the grilled cheese would have been better had I followed the recipe more closely. I cut my bread class rustic white loaf too thick and spread the cheese too thin, but neither of us complained. My classic Deb grilled cheese sandwich is emmanthel or gruyere, a couple leaves of arugula, a slice of tomato, salt and pepper on bread grilled on a panini, but something as humble and unassuming as smooth tomato soup seems no place for such fancy. We had the soup and sandwiches ready just in the nick of time, as the opening scene of Lost was already rolling and OMG, I don’t want to ruin the rest. Warmed, full, dry and rested at last, it was an excellent Wednesday night.
Cream of Tomato Soup
Adapted from The America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook
2 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes packed in juice, drained, 3 cups juice reserved
1 1/2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 large shallots, minced (about 1/2 cup)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Pinch ground allspice
2 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cups chicken stock, homemade or canned low-sodium
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons brandy or dry sherry
Salt and cayenne pepper
1. Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 450°F. Lined rimmed baking sheet with foil. With fingers, carefully open whole tomatoes over strainer set in bowl and push out seeds, allowing juices to fall through strainer into bowl. Spread seeded tomatoes in single layer on foil. Sprinkle evenly with brown sugar. Bake until all liquid has evaporated and tomatoes begin to color, about 30 minutes. Let tomatoes cool slightly, then peel them off foil; transfer to small bowl and set aside.
2. Heat butter over medium heat in large saucepan until foaming. Add shallots, tomato paste and allspice. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until shallots are softened, 7 to 10 minutes. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, until thoroughly combined, about 30 seconds. Gradually add chicken stock, whisking constantly to combine; stir in reserved tomato juice and roasted tomatoes. Cover, increase heat to medium, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, to blend flavors, about 10 minutes.
3. Pour mixture through strainer* and into medium bowl; rinse out saucepan. Transfer tomatoes and solids in strainer to blender; add 1 cup strained liquid and puree until smooth. Place pureed mixture and remaining strained liquid in saucepan. Add cream and warm over low heat until hot, about 3 minutes. Off heat, stir in brandy and season with salt and cayenne. Serve immediately. (Soup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days. Warm over low heat until hot; do not boil.)
* This is the point where Lost was set to begin in t-minus 5 minutes and I’d had enough with the recipe, plunging in the immersion blender until smooth, adding the cream, reheating for a moment, and splashing in the brandy, measurements be damned -maybe Jack will kill Ben tonight! – so a little light on the cream and heavy on the brandy, and the soup lacked for nothing. Oddly, it didn’t need a lick of salt or cayenne, or perhaps I didn’t notice because Lost was so good.
Classic Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
Adapted from The America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook
3 ounces cheese (preferably mild cheddar) or combination of cheese, grated on large holes of box grater (about 3/4 cup)
4 slices (1/2 inch-thick) from white sandwich bread, such as Pepperidge Farm Toasting White
2 tablespoons butter (preferably salted), melted
1. Heat heavy 12-inch skillet over low to medium-low heat. Meanwhile, sprinkle a portion of cheese over two bread slices. Top each with a remaining bread slice, pressing down gently to set.
2. Brush sandwich tops completely with half of melted butter; place each sandwich, buttered-size down, in skillet. Brush remaining side of each sandwich completely with remaining butter. Cook until crisp and deep golden brown, 5 to 10 minutes per side, flipping sandwiches back to first side to reheat and crisp, about 15 seconds. Serve immediately.