The moment just before spring arrives always seems to feel a little chillier. We’ve been cooped up indoors for months and desperately want to ditch our winter jackets for light sweaters. On the bright side, being indoors is the perfect excuse to cozy up with our favourite comfort foods.
Grilled cheese and tomato soup has to be at the top of my comfort-food list. With the plethora of complex cheeses and flavourful additions to explore, a simple grilled cheese sandwich could easily become a new form of artistic expression with endless possibilities. And it would be a crime to keep this art all to yourself!
Five Tips to Hosting a Grilled Cheese Sandwich and Soup Party
1. When your guests arrive, greet them with warming aromas coming from of a big pot of tomato soup simmering on the stove. You need only prepare the soup ahead of time and it can be done a day before. Provide spoons, and bowls or mugs beside the soup so your guests can help themselves. See recipe below.
2. Ask each guest to bring a unique cheese to contribute. And add a few of your own choices to challenge their taste buds. A few ideas:
Taleggio: Semi-soft, cow’s milk cheese from Italy
Etorki: Sheep’s milk cheese from the Basque region of France
Comté: Raw cow’s milk cheese from France
Stevenson Red Leicstershire: Cow’s milk from England with a caramelized flavour
Appenzeller: Hard, raw cow’s milk cheese from Switzerland
Aged or vintage Gouda: Cow’s milk cheese originating from the Netherlands
3. Buy different textures and shapes of bread to pair with your cheeses. Consider including breads with fruits, seeds or nuts. A few ideas:
Ciabatta: Italian bread shaped like a little slipper with a chewy, open crumb.
Focaccia: Soft bread drizzled in olive oil and usually includes herbs.
Rustic bread like Pain de Campagne: Often with a lovely fermented taste and a crisp crust, these breads have a bite and substance.
Brioche or Challah: A soft, melt-in-your-mouth option with a richer taste.
Traditional sliced white bread: Simply for the purists or those that want a blank canvas.
4. Follow these tips when grilling your sandwiches:
Be patient: The key to a great grilled cheese is to use a medium-low heat so that the bread is crisp and toasted while the cheese is warm and melted. If you try to rush the process by using a higher heat, your bread will burn before the cheese fully melts.
About butter: A grilled cheese is most beautiful when it is smothered in a healthy dose of good butter. It’s what makes the edges crispy and the smell of butter slightly browning in the pan is essential.
My trick: Press grated Parmesan onto the buttered exterior of the sandwich before grilling. The Parmesan melts, crisps and creates that lovely melted cheese along the edges of the sandwich.
5. To facilitate the fullest range of food expression, consider these additions and condiments for your guests to experiment with.
Jams: The addition of a jam provides a sweet and tart contrast. Try savoury jams like onion and tomato or sweet versions like quince and fig.
Sliced tomatoes: Slice small cherry tomatoes for grilled cheese. Since they are bite size and don’t interfere with the oozing stretch of the melted cheese.
Duck or pork Rillettes: This French spread can be purchased at most specialty charcuterie stores and adds meaty umami.
Avocado: Adds a creamy richness to a sharp cheese. Drizzle some lemon juice on the surface so it keeps its green colour.
Hearty greens: Options like kale, chard or arugula add an herbaceous note while being able to withstand the heat of the skillet. I sometimes use dandelion leaf offering both bitter and fragrant flavours. Basil is also a natural fit to complement the tomato soup.
Mustard: Good grainy mustard can add a needed acidity to a rich sandwich.
Green apple: Play off of apples and cheddar with thinly sliced granny smiths.
Charcuterie and meats: Try cooked bacon, spicy charcuterie or artisanal hams. I used a local soppressata and smoked bison from a company in Vancouver, Oyama Sausage.
Olives: Have a bowl of olives handy just for snacking or for a briny hit in a sandwich.
Simple Tomato Soup Recipe
The wonderful thing about this tomato soup is that you can just let it simmer while you prepare for the evening. It can also be done a day or two in advance and just reheated prior to serving.
Makes about 8 to 10 small servings.
½ cup olive oil
2 medium onions
4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon sea salt (or to taste)
4 lbs tomatoes (I find that the smaller the tomato, the sweeter the soup)
4 cups stock, veggie or chicken
1 tablepoon aged balsamic vinegar (This enhances the sweetness and acidity of the soup)
2 teaspoons black pepper, freshly ground (or to taste)
Optional: Tomato and basil stems (I find this adds flavour to tomatoes out of season)
- In a large heavy pot, heat the oil on medium heat and start cooking the onions and garlic with 2 teaspoons of salt until they begin to turn translucent and soft.
- Add the tomatoes and stems, mix and cover the pot for about 3 to 5 minutes, so they begin to release their juices.
- Add the stock, mix the soup and bring to a boil. Lower the temperature so it bubbles slightly and simmer for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
- When the liquids have reduced to about 2/3 to 3/4, take out the stems and use an immersion blender to blend the soup to a fine consistency. Mix in the balsamic vinegar, pepper and the remainder of the salt to taste.
Jackie Kai Ellis is the owner and baker of Beaucoup Bakery, CEO/co-founder of The Paris Tours, JKE, Bespoken, Recette and The Invisible Thread. To Learn more about her, follow her on Twitter @JackieKaiEllis.