This Tomato Soup Is Here to Provide Relief During Stressful Times

Editor’s Note: As more people are working from home, Bloomberg Pursuits is running a weekly Lunch Break column that highlights a notable recipe from a favorite cookbook and the hack that makes it genius. 

Anyone who was thinking that the need for comfort food hit its apex during the first months of the pandemic did not anticipate election day in the U.S.

Searches for “fries near me” hit an all-time high as Nov. 3 dragged on, according to Google Trends. As did “liquor stores near me”—little surprise. But for those who have worked their way through the drinking options as the electorate awaits a president to be named, here’s an alternate, two-word comfort source: tomato soup.

The time-honored favorite is the culinary equivalent of a security blanket. A steaming bowl of the creamy, sweet soup conjures up coziness, especially when it’s accompanied by a simple grilled-cheese sandwich. The combo is a powerful one: On Friends, tomato soup with grilled cheese was Chandler’s “traditional” Thanksgiving meal.

The pairing is also stars in Hot Cheese: Over 50 Gooey, Oozy, Melty Recipes, by Polina Chesnakova (Chronicle Books; $20). The  new cookbook includes recipes for notable dishes, from fondue to the glorious Georgian cheese-stuffed bread khachapuri. Chesnakova is a cheese fanatic, having worked at Culture, a magazine dedicated to the stuff. Her book represents a range of favorites dishes she’s come across, with cheese playing parts ranging from marquee spots to best-supporting roles.

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“The book is all about comfort food. You can’t get more comforted than melty, oozy cheese,” she says, correctly. But, she adds: “Food can be comforting in evoking a sense of time and place. This combination of tomato soup with grilled cheese is a dish we have all had. Besides being physically comforting, it’s emotionally comforting, too.”

To make tomato soup worthy of the book’s subject, Chesnakova turns grilled cheese into a key part of the dish: a crouton garnish.

The recipe includes licorice-y fennel and a splash of white wine, which makes the resulting soup more interesting and complex without adding obnoxious flavor. On using blue cheese instead of more conventional American cheese in the sandwich-croutons, “It has still got the ooze,” she says, “but blue makes a bigger statement” with its pungent, tangy bite.

Even the process of making the dish is soothing: A little chopping, some sauteeing and simmering, and then the satisfying process of pureeing, transforming the contents of the pot into a smooth soup.

As good as Chesnakova’s combo is, it’s also very adaptable. The book reflects the pantry mentality that so many people have adopted during the pandemic. If you don’t have fennel, add more onion. If there’s no fresh herbs, use dried ones. And if you don’t want blue cheese, replace it and the cream cheese with your favorite semi-hard one, such as cheddar or Gruyere. It will be much less oozy, but no less tasty.

The following recipe is adapted from Hot Cheese by Polina Chesnakova.

Tomato Soup With Grilled Cheese Croutons

Serves 4 to 6

3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, cut into thin slices
1 fennel bulb, cut into thin slices
Kosher salt
3 garlic cloves, smashed
1 fresh basil sprig
1 fresh oregano sprig
1/4 cup dry white wine
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
Pinch of sugar, plus more as needed
1/4 cup heavy cream
4 oz. blue cheese, such as Gorgonzola or Danish blue (about 1 cup), crumbled
2 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
Unsalted butter, at room temperature, for spreading
4 slices country white or sourdough bread

In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, fennel, and a big pinch of salt, and then cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables soften and begin to brown, about 12 minutes. Stir in the garlic, basil, and oregano, and cook for an additional 2 to 3 minutes. Add the wine, scraping up the browned bits from the pot, and cook until the liquid evaporates, about 2 minutes.

Stir in the stock, the tomatoes and their juices, a big pinch of sugar, and a further big pinch of salt. Bring just to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 25 minutes. Let cool slightly, then purée in batches in a blender. (Alternatively, purée using an immersion blender.)  Stir in the heavy cream and season with salt. If needed, add sugar until the soup loses its acidic tang.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mash the blue cheese into the cream cheese until spreadable. Butter each bread slice on one side. Spread the blue cheese mixture evenly on the unbuttered sides, then combine to make two cheese-filled sandwiches.

Heat a large cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the sandwiches, cover with a lid, and cook until browned on the bottom, 3 to 4 minutes. Flip, and cook, covered, for an additional 1 to 2 minutes, until browned and the cheese has melted. Transfer to a cutting board, let cool slightly, then cut into bite-size pieces. Immediately serve them atop bowls of soup.

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