"I need a hug," my son would say every once in a while, when I would pick him up from grade school. As his Mom, I knew what he needed. A long hug, a kiss on the top of his head, a sympathetic ear to listen to his problems at school that day, and his favorite comfort food that night for dinner. A Mother does what she can to comfort her clan. It is our job. It is our way.
Ha! That was so long ago. Just look at my big boy now! Tastie just turned 12 years old in May. I cannot believe how quickly the time has gone. He getting almost as tall as me, and clearly, I am the one needing the hugs now. I'm holding on for dear life.
There are some meals that simply cannot be beat in terms of the comfort, love and childhood memories they provide. Everyone has that one go-to meal that you just gravitate towards on a cold or rainy days like the ones we have been having in Kansas City this week. Or perhaps life is kicking you in the chin, and you just need a little food lovin'. That is when you seek out that one dish that provides you with a warm hug right when you need it most, and especially when there is no one around to give it to you.
Have you ever had anyone ask you in jest what your "last meal" on earth would be? (It is a game foodies play with each other.) Ever notice the dishes that you mention or gravitate towards naming. They are usually not fine dining specialities like lobster or caviar, or that fabulous pasta dish you had in Tuscany. Usually, if you are honest, it is something homemade you absolutely loved and remember eating from your childhood. Maybe, even something made by your dear old Mom. THOSE are the kind of powerful dishes I am talking about. A hug in a bowl.
My favorite comfort food for this purpose is creamy tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
I suppose my Mom must have been the first person to have made tomato soup and grilled cheese for me, but hers was definitely not my favorite. My Mom . . .God, I miss her so much. She would make Campbell's Creamy Tomato Soup out of a can and add one can of 2% milk and heat it up on the stove for me. Then while the soup was not "cooking," mind you, but simply "warming" to temp, she would take two pieces of white bread, and spread margarine on each of them while unwrapping two Kraft American Cheese slices from their wrinkly, crinkly clear plastic wrappers and place one of each slice of bread.
(Those wrappers were the sound of my childhood food memories. Almost everything I loved came in those clear cellophane plastic wrappers. Cookies, Little Debbie Snack Cakes, Twinkies . . .it was the sound of my impending sugar high.)
My Mom would then put the grilled cheese sandwich together and place it in a hot frying pan on the stove and proceed to crisp the bread up, and melt the cheese down. Sitting down to a meal that represented all my favorite things was a high that I simply could not describe as a kid. I knew my Mom had made this meal, especially for me. It was MY favorite. Not my brothers, or my Dad's, but MY favorite. There was no terrible lima beans or scalloped potatoes to have to choke down or hide in your napkin, before you could eat the best thing on your plate. Everything about creamy tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich was then and always will be the BEST thing on my plate.
As I got older, and learned to make this dish for myself, I noticed that I only seemed to make tomato soup and grilled cheese when I was stressed out or sick. In college, finals week seemed to be filled with hot plate grilled cheese sandwiches made in my room and microwaved tomato soup. I also began to lean on it to cure the common cold or a troubling sinus infection. When I was pregnant with Tastie, it was the one thing that ALWAYS sounded good to me, when nothing else did due to morning sickness. At this point, Campbell's Creamy Tomato soup was still my go to, but the icky American cheese my Mom had used had morphed into orange cheddar cheese and I used real butter to crisp up my bread in the pan, instead of margarine.
I usually had a restaurant that I could count on to deliver an amazing homemade creamy tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich in a pinch if I was having an emergency and needed a fix during my work day. Westside Local is still one of my favorite places to order the tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich in Kansas City. Their grilled cheese sandwich comes with tomato fennel soup for dipping (a must), and a toasted sandwich with brie, emmentaler and local white cheddar on Sasha’s Baking Co. sourdough bread. The French Fries are just an added bonus to the plate. Not exactly the way I would make for myself at home, but this is so darn comforting, it comes very close. When I was newly divorced and just moved to the Westside, I ate a lot of Westside Local Grilled Cheese sandwiches and Tomato Fennel Soup that first year.
In fact, Westside Local, was the first place that made me realize that I could MAKE my own creamy tomato soup, from scratch. I thought to myself, I might even be able to make it better than theirs. That's when the world of homemade soups and building a better grilled cheese sandwich opened up to me. As I began researching online and experimenting with different cheeses, breads and tomato soup recipes, I started to steal the best techniques of the web and incorporating them into my recipe. Let's just say that I am an excellent homemade creamy tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich maker as a result.
But recently, I came across a recipe for creamy tomato soup that I have literally made twice in the last week. No, no nothing is THAT wrong that I NEEDED to make it twice in the last week, I WANTED to because it tasted so darn good, and because I happen to have 6 cans of Red Gold Tomatoes that were sent to me by the company to try their new aioli recipes, in hopes that I would blog about them. I was already a fan of Red Gold Tomatoes, I think they are of fine quality for the price, so when they offered me 6 free cans I said, "Sure, send them on over."
They came in the mail in this adorable caddy, and an apron and wooden spoon for mixing the aioli, I can only assume. It also came with this sheet of aioli recipes . . .that called for mayo . . .and canned tomatoes.
I was flummoxed. First, I know how to make my own aioli from scratch, and my recipe does not call for "lite mayo" and tomatoes. It felt like a bit of a stretch, and the marketer in me, wondered why Red Gold would want to promote canned tomatoes at the height of the summer . . .AKA: real garden tomato season.
I took the opportunity then to go outside and look at my own beautiful tomato plant I am nursing right now in the heart of downtown Kansas City on my tiny little balcony. The tomato plant itself is local from a Missouri farm and I bought it at Whole Foods with the promise of a few small green tomatoes already on it. I shuttled it in and out of the house this Spring when frost threatened the land, and my potential tomato bounty.
That's when I realized it is the middle of June already and I only had two red tomatoes on my own vine. Canned tomatoes were going to have to do for my creamy tomato soup recipe until the real deal arrived in numbers.
Red Gold tomato cans in hand, I came across and have been making this homemade creamy tomato soup recipe from FineCooking.com, and I think it is the best I've ever made.
It is by far the easiest recipe, and if you substitute the little bit of butter in the recipe for olive oil, it is completely dairy free as well. Creamy tomato soup without the calories of heavy cream? Sign me up. I've made notations on where I have made some changes to the recipe.
CLASSIC TOMATO SOUP RECIPE
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil (use 3 Tbs. if you are omitting the butter)
1 Tbs. unsalted butter
1 large white onion, finely chopped
3 large cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled
2 Tbs. all-purpose flour
3 cups lower-salt chicken broth, (plus 2 Tbs. of Cognac or wine, if you have it on hand)
28-oz. whole peeled plum tomatoes, puréed (include the juice) or (2) 14.5 oz. cans of Red Gold Tomatoes
1-1/2 tsp. sugar (I use 1 tsp. of agave and 1 tsp. of tomato paste)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbs. thinly sliced fresh basil, chives, or dill, or a mixture of all three (I use good dried herbs from Penzeys for this with the same result, if you don't have fresh herbs on hand.)
In a nonreactive 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven, heat the oil and/or butter over medium-low heat until the butter melts. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft but not browned, about 8 minutes. Add the flour and stir to coat the onion and garlic.
Add the broth, (and cognac or wine) tomatoes, sugar, and 1/4 tsp. each salt and pepper and all dried herbs if using them. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat while stirring the mixture to make sure that the flour is not sticking to the bottom of the pan. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 40 minutes.
Let cool briefly and then purée in two or three batches in a blender or food processor. Rinse the pot and return the soup to the pot. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Reheat if necessary. Serve warm but not hot, garnished with the fresh herbs if using them.
TIP: Be sure to purée in small batches and crack the blender lid slightly (or remove the center cap from the lid). Steam can build up once you start blending, and if the lid is on tight or the blender is overfilled, it will spray hot soup all over you and your kitchen. For protection, cover the top with a dishtowel while puréeing.
2 slices of your choice of bread - (wheat, white, rye, sourdough etc.)
2 slices of your choice of cheese - (look for cheeses that melt easily, I always use white cheddar, but consider provolone, swiss, pepper jack . . .or sigh, American, if you must.)
2 Tbs. of spicy mustard (to spread on the inside of your bread)
1 Tbs. of Butter AND 1 Tbs. of Mayo or Mircle Whip to spread on the outside of your bread to give it that good crisp crunch and that little extra tang. Believe me, you need the mayo it makes a huge difference in the crispness and flavor of this sandwhich. Trust me. Just try it.
Put the sandwich together and place in a non-stick hot skillet for about 2 minutes on each side, careful not to burn it, then flip. Cook until both sides are golden brown and crunchy and the cheese has just started to melt.
ALWAYS cut your sandwich diagonally to maximize the surface area for dunking in your tomato soup.
May you always know how to comfort and feed youself and your family, my friends. Enjoy!
I have a follow-up post to this one, called: "One for my baby, and one more for the road," you might enjoy.