I have a confession: I’m spinning way too many plates right now. So many that I’m having trouble remembering to do day-to-day things like, say, plan something for supper. Which is what I did on Monday night. My “Oops” moment came about ten minutes before I left my office.
During my evening commute, I tried to come up with as many quick options as I could, since on top of my forgetfulness I had to work later than usual. The day was saved by a couple of leftovers and some odds and ends, not to mention the willingness of my husband and son to engage in a little bit of mealtime roulette. A gourmet spread it was not, and no two plates were alike, but nobody went to bed hungry and none of remnants of the weekend’s dishes went to waste.
I couldn’t pull that kind of supper out of a hat two nights in a row, but I still needed a similarly quick meal for Tuesday night without making a trip to the store. Looking around the kitchen, my eyes rested on the lovely tomatoes newly plucked from our garden and I found my Tuesday night muse, one of my favorite standbys: soup and sandwiches, specifically grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato bisque.
As a kid, I was no friend of the tomato thanks to a food allergy. Even though I’ve outgrown the allergy and love them now – often eating them three meals a day - because of my childhood aversion I was shocked when my son, then four, slurped his way through a takeaway bowl of tomato bisque from one of our favorite local sandwich shops and immediately asked for more. When he did it on two more occasions, I knew it was no fluke. I needed to find a recipe.
Three weeks and fifteen cookbooks from the library later, I still hadn’t read a recipe that seemed like it would work. I wanted something similar enough to the takeaway soup that my son would be almost guaranteed to like it, but simple enough that I would be able to whip it up from pantry staples and/or garden produce on short notice. I finally stumbled upon the following recipe in a small, well-worn book devoted to soups:
2 1/2 pounds fresh tomatoes*
1 cup homemade chicken stock or canned broth
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 T chopped fresh basil – omit if you can’t get it fresh
3 C half-and-half or a combination of cream and milk to substitute
4 T unsalted butter
1/4 C all-purpose flour
white pepper to taste
- Roughly dice the tomatoes after removing the blossom and stem ends. Combine tomatoes, stock, sugar, salt in a large non-reactive saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook till tomatoes are very soft, approximately 30-45 minutes.
- Using an immersion blender, blend this mixture till smooth. Cut basil into strips and add to the tomato mixture after blending.
- If you don’t have a second large non-reactive saucepan or pot, transfer the tomato-basil mixture to another non-reactive and heat-safe container to hold while the cream base is prepared.
- Scald the half-and-half over medium heat; remove from heat and reserve.
- Melt butter over medium heat, then add the flour and cook for 3-5 minutes (the flour should be just turning a deep golden brown – not too dark, but definitely not too light). Add the scalded half-and-half and stir constantly till smooth.
- Stir in the tomato-basil puree until the bisque is heated through. Do not allow the soup to boil. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.
*I’ve found that San Marzano or Romas are best but I’ve used almost every type except cherry tomatoes. We have San Marzano, Roma, and Juliet grape tomatoes in our garden this year and I used some of each, as well as some slicing tomatoes from the grocery store.
Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
Grilled cheese is almost as easy as it gets when it comes to sandwiches. Butter two slices of bread and melt some cheese between them, right? Even so, the humble grilled cheese can soar to great heights with the right inspiration and ingredients (just ask the Grilled Cheese Invitational folks). Here are some ways in which I like to fancy-up our sandwiches:
- A sprinkle of kosher salt or powdered sugar. If, ahem, your poor child has grown accustomed to the taste of grilled cheese sandwiches from Sonic, a little salt or sugar on top will quickly convince them that the homemade version is infinitely superior.
- Use a variety of cheeses. We are passing through a phase where a certain young man demands ‘melty cheese’ and won’t hear of anything else. I indulge this to a point – in other dishes where cheese is called for I do it my way, but for his grilled cheese sandwiches and on burgers, I use kosher American cheese. For my own, I’ll try just about any kind of cheese in any combination. I particularly like meunster, fresh mozzarella, and cheddar with a slice of tomato. Don’t be afraid to use whatever you have on hand in a combination that sounds reasonable.
- Use good bread that’s a little stale. My all-time favorite bread for grilled cheese is sourdough, but since I have not yet found success with homemade sourdough, I just use the sandwich bread I make almost every week. It works best if it’s a couple days old but not so stale that the only options left are French toast or the duck pond.
This meal takes about an hour to prepare, and much of that time is unattended cooking. Boiling down the tomatoes takes up most of that hour, though cutting the tomatoes into smaller chunks can help reduce that step by as much as 10-15 minutes. The roux can be made and the milk scalded while the tomatoes are boiling down so that as soon as they’re ready everything can be assembled and brought to its final pre-serve simmer. I’ve made a grilled cheese sandwich in under two minutes while the soup cooled slightly in bowls – a preheated pan or griddle and softened butter help speed things along.