Thursday, October 17, 2013

Smoky Tomato Soup & Grilled Cheese and Bacon Sandwiches

On a cold day, sitting down to a steaming bowl of soup and a hot sandwich can be so satisfying.  And the classic soup-and-sandwich combo to beat them all is tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich.

That's the stuff.

But canned tomato soup has so many additives… tons of sugar you can’t taste over the tomato, loads of salt you don’t need, and all kinds of preservatives.  The answer then is to make it at home.  There are many different ways to make homemade tomato soup, from roasting the tomatoes and pureeing them, canned smashed tomatoes, it goes on.  But I’ve found the easiest, fastest, yet nevertheless quite pleasing method is to use a can of straight up tomato paste.  There’s something beautiful about taking a ton of tomatoes, pureeing them and then boiling them into a concentrated paste that can be canned and kept on a shelf indefinitely, all while adding nothing extra.  That’s right, tomato paste is nothing but plain ol’ TOMATO.  And then not having to do it yourself; you can buy this stuff in any grocery store worth its salt.

I must admit this recipe did not pop out of my head like Athena did Zeus, but formed after reading three different recipes (the originating sites of which I cannot recall), and much fiddling with various spices and retasting.

Most of those recipes agreed that tomato paste is good, and that there should be milk, and maybe water, and baking soda to keep the milk from curdling.  I’m honestly not sure how anyone can taste slightly curdled milk beneath all that tomato, but maybe they’re supertasters or maybe they’re just boiling the soup too much.  Honestly, people.  You don’t boil tomato soup.  You heat it until it’s warm enough to consume, no more.

They also concurred there should definitely be a little sugar, and always a little salt, and you can add garlic powder and pepper if you like that thing, you wild crazy person you.  They kept mentioning that part.  I guess some people don’t go beyond salt and pepper.  How sad for them.

Well, I like milk.  But I am of the opinion that water can almost always be substituted for broth or something more flavorful when it comes to soup.  But we really don’t need broth or stock for plain old thick tomato soup.  Milk alone will do.  I found a one parts tomato paste to two parts milk is a winning combo and needs no further fiddling with beyond spices.  That’s where the fun starts – and the seasoning is what makes this soup recipe unique.

At first I went only with salt, sugar, garlic powder and black pepper.  But garlic goes hand in hand with onion powder in many savory things, just as I prefer to match black pepper with white.

I like pairing celery with tomato – from my Ma’s Bloody Marys probably, so I tried a dash of celery salt, which I liked, personally, but is not completely necessary for the soup.

But the seasonings that make this soup special are the cayenne, instant smoke, and smoked paprika.  To me a food should not just taste how it should – it should also taste how it looks.  Tomato soup to me should have a warm, red flavor.  In this case I think it should have a little fire to it – hence the cayenne and paprika.  And with fire comes smoke.  Somewhere in one of my gourmet magazines – either Bon Appetit or Gourmet Magazine or Food & Wine, I can’t remember, had a cold tomato soup that requuired no chilling.  It was very good stuff, and asked for smoked olive oil, which is difficult to get ahold of.  Barring that, it recommended using a teensy bit of instant smoke, and I’ve been experimenting with that strange substance ever since.  I suppose you could use normal paprika if you don’t want to buy the smoked stuff, but I like mine smoked for this dish.

It’s really important you only use a smidgen of instant smoke.  I can’t state this enough.  I received a gag gift several Christmases ago for my stocking – a measuring spoon set of miniscule proportions, the smallest being a drop, and that is what I use to measure out my instant smoke – a drop.  Instant smoke is powerful stuff – being the liquid that condenses from wood smoke, and it imparts a strong smoky flavor that can be overwhelming if used too liberally.  If you’re not a huge fan of smoke, only use a single drop of this liquid, or you might be unhappy with the result.

Now for the sandwiches.  Kolby Jack makes for the best cheese melts.  It melts nicely, and has a great flavor, not too sharp, not too mild.  Because we have a smoky note to our soup, I like to add a slight smokiness to the sandwiches as well to tie them together.  Perhaps smoked cheese would work, but everything is better with bacon, therefore we will use smoked thick-cut bacon in this recipe.

I think melted sandwiches are best done Panini-style, but not everyone has a Panini press, and even though I have one I tend to burn my sandwiches in it.  For me, the fork and spatula method works best for me.  As you cook the bread in the hot skillet, you use the fork and spatula to press the buttered bread onto the hot metal, thus making a do-it-yourself Panini without all the do-dads.

This recipe will make two servings.  That's one serving.

You will need:
6oz can of Tomato paste – pure, no extra ingredients
Low fat milk – two 6oz can’s worth
1 tsp Sugar
½ tsp salt
 ¼ tsp garlic powder
1/8 tsp onion powder
¼ tsp black pepper
½ tsp white pepper
1-2 drops instant smoke to taste
Light shake of cayenne pepper to taste
Shake of smoked paprika
Light shake of celery salt
1.        Open the can of tomato paste and dump it into a saucepan.
2.       Fill the can with milk and empty into the saucepan twice to wash out the leftover tomato bits.  Stir with a whisk.
3.       Measure out the sugar, salt, garlic powder, onion powder, and black and white pepper, dumping each into the saucepan and stir. 
4.       Gently tap the edge of the celery salt container to shake a little of it into the tomato mixture; you’re looking to add no more than 1/16th of a teaspoon, the same with the cayenne and smoked paprika.  Taste the mixture and add more cayenne if you’d like a little more heat.  Whisk.
5.       To make sure you don’t use more than a drop or two of instant smoke (which has a highly concentrated flavor), pour a little instant smoke into the smallest measuring spoon you have, then use a clean finger to add two drops to the saucepan.  This gives the soup its wonderfully deep, smoky flavor.
6.       Make the grilled-cheese-and-bacon sandwiches.
7.       While whisking, heat the soup until just before it starts bubbling, and take off heat to cool for two minutes.
8.       Serve in wide bowls you can dip a sandwich into.

Light crusty bread, 8 slices
8 slices of pre-cut Kolby-jack cheese
Six strips of thick-cut smoked bacon
Tub of margarine
Large flat spatula
1.       Heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
2.       Line a pan (not a sheet) thoroughly with foil.  Lay out the bacon on the pan so they’re barely touching each other.  Cook in the oven for 14 minutes or until the fat is sizzling and the strips are noticeably reduced and beginning to crisp up.
3.       Remove the bacon from the oven and let cool. 
4.       Lay a strip of parchment paper down on the counter/table.
5.       Take the loaf and arrange the slices in pairs for each sandwich you want to make.  I prefer to make two sandwiches per person.  I like to use concurrent slices for each sandwich, like so:

6.       Butter the outside of both slices – you should keep the sides that faced each other clean.  Arrange the slices butter side up on the parchment paper.
7.       Tear up the cheese into strips the width of your bread slices, making sure the bread is covered but the cheese does not hang past the crust.  You’ll want a slice per bread piece.
8.       Cut the bacon into inch-pieces.  Lay them out on the bread – about a strip and a half per sandwich.
9.       Assemble the sandwich; bread butter side down, a layer of cheese, a layer of bacon, then the other slice – cheese, bread butter side up.
Like this.

Or if you need a real picture...

10.   Heat a small skillet on the stove, one just large enough to accommodate a single sandwich.
11.   When the skillet is hot, place the sandwich on the skillet.  Press the sandwich onto the skillet firmly using the spatula, and press down the spatula with a fork for leverage.
12.   Cook both sides of the sandwich until golden with light brown graining, like the above picture.  Use the fork and spatula to turn the sandwich over without separating the components from each other.  Using pressure while cooking will make the melted cheese act as a glue to hold the whole sandwich together.
13.    When the sandwich is done, place it on a plate and make the next one.

14.   Heat the tomato soup, serve and eat.  The sandwiches can be dipped into the soup.

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