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, here’s an alternate, two-word comfort source: tomato soup.
The time-honored favorite is the culinary equivalent of a security blanket. 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 says. “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 says, “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 people 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.