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.
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.
“The book is all about comfort food. You can’t get more comforted than melty, oozy cheese,” she said. “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 said, “but blue makes a bigger statement” with its pungent, tangy bite.
Even the process of making the dish is soothing: A little chopping, some sauteing 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 of us 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 semihard one, such as cheddar or Gruyere. It will be much less oozy, but no less tasty.
Tomato soup with grilled cheese croutons
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, smashed
1 fresh basil sprig
1 fresh oregano sprig
¼ cup dry white wine
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
Pinch of sugar, plus more as needed
¼ cup heavy cream
4 ounces (about 1 cup) blue cheese, such as Gorgonzola or Danish blue, crumbled
2 ounces 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 onion and fennel slices and a big pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables soften and begin to brown, about 12 minutes. Add garlic, basil, and oregano, and cook additional 2 to 3 minutes. Add the wine, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom, and cook until the liquid evaporates, about 2 minutes.
Add stock, the tomatoes and their juices, a big pinch of sugar, and another 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 puree in batches in a blender. (Alternatively, puree using an immersion blender.) Stir in the heavy cream and season with salt. If needed, add sugar until the soup loses its acidic tang.
In a small bowl, mash blue cheese and cream cheese together until spreadable. Butter each bread slice on one side. Spread the 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 another 1 to 2 minutes, until the bread is browned and the cheese has melted. Transfer to a cutting board, let cool slightly, then cut into bite-size pieces. Serve immediately atop bowls of soup.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
— Recipe from “Hot Cheese: Over 50 Gooey, Oozy, Melty Recipes,” by Polina Chesnakova (Chronicle Books; $20)