This evening, to wrap up the first day of Advent (my favorite season of year), an afternoon session of engagement photos, and Christmas tree shopping at Lowe's, I decided to go a classic comfort route for dinner: grilled cheese and tomato soup. For the soup, I stuck with a traditional, Italian-influenced recipe that uses chunks of soggy bread instead of cream to give the soup a mock-thickness. The grilled cheese was equally simple: hearty slices of oatmeal bread, Dijon mustard, smoked mozzarella and a sheep's milk cheese with hot red pepper balanced out the tanginess of the tomato soup and gave our meal a truly all-around comforting feeling. No way in this life can I come close to the sophistication and imagination of the historical recipes that were used at the America Eats Tavern. But the experience alone was enough to whet my curiosity about old classics and not to be afraid of outdated recipes. Anything can be modernized, prettily presented, re-flavored, and re-inspired. The re-inspiration in this classic grilled cheese and tomato soup evening consisted of fancy sheep cheese and fried sage; beyond that, I take comfort in knowing that such amazing creativity can be used to polish old recipes. Be inspired!
Classic Tomato Soup
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil (I used an Italian herbs oil from this specialty shop in Charlottesville, VA.)
1 medium onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch hot red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
2 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes
1 tablespoon brown sugar
3 large slices good sandwich bread, crusts removed and cut into 1-inch squares (I used Whole Foods' oatmeal bread)
1/4 to 1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
Salt and fresh pepper
Fried sage (recipe to follow)
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, and bay leaf. Cook, stirring frequently, until onion is soft and translucent. Stir in tomatoes. Mash with potato masher until tomatoes are broken down and soft. Stir in sugar and bread and bring soup to boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook until bread is completely saturated and starts to break down. Remove bay leaf.
Add 1 more tablespoon oil and blend with immersion blender or transfer to standard blender in batches until smooth, or to desired consistency. (I leave the soup just a bit chunky, for rustic time's sake.) Stir in chicken broth until soup reaches desired thickness. Return soup to boil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve in single bowl and sprinkle each bowl with fried sage.
1 tablespoon butter
1 small bundle fresh sage
In a small skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Wash sage thoroughly and pat dry. When butter is melted, add pieces of sage and fry until crispy. Serve on top of tomato soup, fancy grilled cheese, or even crumbled in buttermilk biscuits.