Monday, February 8, 2010

Classics/Grilled Cheese + Tomato Soup

I have been itching to make grilled cheese and tomato soup for a while now, especially as winter progresses and food needs to be increasingly comforting to ease those winter blues. For the same reason, I also feel that this meal should be a communal experience; it's good when you're alone, but better when you're surrounded by friends. Imagine my surprise when I sat down to dinner, dipped the crispy point of my grilled cheese into my soup and my friend looked at me and said "hmm, that seems like a good idea!" I was shocked, apparently in Canada grilled cheese and tomato soup is not a classic combination. The two are well loved but as separate, albeit delicious, entities. Well all I have to say about that is that my Canadian friends have been missing out one of the best classic comfort foods I know.

At the very moment my friend said that I was slightly appalled and saddened by the cultural divide. That being said, I was glad that I got a chance to share some American culinary classics with our friends up north. The truth is, however, that for me these grilled cheese sandwiches have a much more convoluted cultural history. The grilled cheese I make is on rustic bread with sharp cheese, a smear of dijon and a well buttered exterior that crisps to perfection in the oven. Yes, these are oven baked grilled cheeses, which makes them perfect when you're feeding a lot of people or if you want to serve mini ones to guests as appetizers. In my family these are called pierini and have been a family classic (on my mom's Italian side) for longer than I have been around. These were always my grandfather's favorite and he was known for surreptitiously sneaking into my grandmother's bridge parties to steal one or two. Like I said these are no ordinary grilled cheeses, they are rich in flavor and in history.

That being said, when my parents moved to the States certain evolutions occurred and the introduction of the grilled cheese and tomato soup was a part of the natural assimilation process. Thankfully, at our house tomato soup was always homemade, thick enough to really hang on to the toasted bread and oozing cheese. The grilled cheeses maintained their pierini integrity, the conversion to white bread and American cheese never happened and you can be sure it never will. Although I think these two always belong together, you should know that this tomato soup is also delicious on its own, it's thick and hearty, with absolutely no likeness to its runnier, canned counterparts. This soup actually tastes like it was made with tomatoes and the flavor is amplified by the sweetness imparted from the slightly caramelized, roasted tomatoes. The grilled cheese is rich in cheesy flavor and maintains just the right balance between a soft center which willingly absorbs the tomato soup, and crunchy edges and crust. There is a reason this meal is an American classic and a family favorite of mine, it's a meal that just makes sense, somehow providing ample flavor, peace of mind and mental clarity all at the same time. I guess you'll have to eat it to see what I mean.

Tomato Soup
(serves 4)

2 28oz. cans whole San Marzano tomatoes
1 large Vidalia onion, chopped
4 tbsp. butter
3 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. tomato paste
2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp. flour
1 1/2 tbsp. salt
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place a strainer over a bowl and empty the tomatoes into the strainer. Squeeze the tomatoes to release any extra juices. Reserve the bowl full of juices. Place the whole tomatoes on a baking sheet, drizzle with the olive oil and place in the oven for 20 minutes, until they are slightly dry and caramelizing around the edges.
2) While the tomatoes are in the oven melt the butter in a pot over medium heat. When the foam subsides, add the onions and cook until soft, 5-7 minutes. Add 1 tbsp. of balsamic vinegar scraping up the browned bits, then add the tomato paste, flour and salt. When everything is combined add the other tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, deglazing the pan a second time. Pour in the reserved tomato juices and add the bay leaves, bring to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
3) Add the roasted tomatoes to the pot. Simmer for another 20 minutes. Then take out the bay leaves, set aside and using a handheld blender puree the soup. Put the bay leaves back in and heat through, adding salt and pepper to taste if necessary.
4) Serve hot or refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Grilled Cheese
(for 1 sandwich, multiply for more)

2 slices French country bread
1/2 tbsp. dijon mustard
3 oz. mixed grated cheese (I used gruyere, cheddar and jarlsberg)
1 tbsp. butter

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter one side of one piece of bread, spread half the mustard on the other side. Place butter side down on a foil-lined baking sheet. Butter one side of the other slice of bread and spread the mustard on the other, place this slice, mustard side down on the cheese side of the sandwich.
2) Bake for 12 minutes flipping halfway through, serve immediately (it's best dipped into tomato soup).

• I like to bake my grilled cheeses so that I can make several at a time. If this is the case the cooking time remains the same.


Anonymous said...

Frenchie, come make me dinner! thanks. miss you and love you -ouisie

Anonymous said...

As the Canadian friend once said... "good call".

pdc said...

Roasted tomatoes and balsamic vinegar two very interesting additions, will try it my daughter's way

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