Eric Akis: Tomato soup with grilled cheese a match made in heaven

Eric Akis

Like bacon and eggs and burgers and fries, grilled cheese sandwiches served with tomato soup is a classic and popular combination.

I was enjoying this classic combo recently and began to wonder who first served them together. I did some research and was surprised to learn that making a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup was first of all about creating a more balanced, healthy meal.

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Food historians say humans have been eating cooked bread and cheese combinations for eons. But the North American-style grilled cheese sandwich is something that did not hit griddles until the 1920s.

According to the food history website foodtimeline.org, it was in that era that affordable, sliced white bread and inexpensive processed cheese hit the market in the United States. Not long after, folks were sandwiching them together and grilling them.

During the Second World War, grilled cheese sandwiches were noted in government-issued cookbooks, and U.S. navy cooks prepared them for their fellow sailors. They were easy to make, inexpensive and at that time met government nutrition standards.

After the war, standards were updated and in institutional foodservice situations, including school cafeterias, it was decided that, to make a more rounded meal, grilled cheese sandwiches had to be accompanied with something else. That something else became tomato soup, which provided a vitamin C component.

As with a grilled cheese sandwich, the soup also was economical and easy to prepare, especially if it came out of a can, such as Campbell’s tomato soup. The best part, though, is that the two tasted great together: a golden, toasted sandwich with a molten cheese middle served with a tangy, tomatoey and steaming bowl of soup. What’s not to like?

Although seemingly simple to prepare, there are a few things you need to know if you want to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. Below are some tips. You’ll also find recipes for grilled cheese sandwiches and the homemade tomato soup to serve with them.

Grilled Cheese Sandwiches 101

I know I’ve made the perfect grilled cheese sandwich when the outside has a golden, toasted, almost crunchy crust that when bitten into, yields to more tender bread and a molten cheese middle. Here are some tips to make that kind of sandwich.

• For a lovely, golden, toasted exterior, sliced white bread is the best type to use for grilled cheese sandwiches. The Island-baked breads I like to use are Portofino European Bakery white pan loaf, or Island Bakery premium white bread.

• If you’ve baked your own white bread or bought an unsliced loaf to make the sandwich, cut it about the same thickness as store-bought sliced white bread. If you cut it too thick, it will take forever for the cheese to melt and you'll over- toast the bread.

• Evenly and generously coat the bread with butter to ensure that the whole slice turns golden brown when grilled. Some folks actually like to spread the side of the bread that will be grilled with mayonnaise instead of butter. That mayonnaise does turn the bread golden when grilled, but I’m old school and still prefer to use butter.

• Cook the sandwiches in a pan or griddle set over medium heat. This moderate temperature will ensure the outside of the bread slowly browns, while the cheese in the middle has a chance to heat up and melt.

Deluxe Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

I call these “deluxe” because the bread is richly buttered and stuffed with three types of cheese. When grilled, the bread becomes toasted and golden and the cheese melts together and becomes molten and marvellous.

Preparation time: Five minutes

Cooking time: Six to eight minutes

Makes: Two sandwiches

4 slices white bread (see Eric’s options)

3 to 4 Tbsp butter, at room temperature

50 to 60 grams old orange cheddar cheese, thinly sliced

50 to 60 grams old white cheddar cheese, thinly sliced

2 to 3 thin slices process cheese

Evenly and generously butter one side of each bread slice. Top the unbuttered side of two of the bread slices with slices of orange cheddar, white cheddar and processed cheese, ensuring the surface of the bread is completely covered. Set on the other bread slices, buttered side up.

Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the sandwiches and grill three to four minutes per side, or until the cheese is melted and the bread is golden brown. Lower the heat a bit if the sandwiches are browning too quickly.

When they’re cooked, to prevent the melted cheese from running out like hot lava (some oozing is OK!), let the sandwiches rest a minute, before cutting and serving.

Eric’s options: If you really need the added fibre you could, of course, replace the white bread with whole grain bread. Or, for a tangy taste, use sour dough bread. You could also replace the white cheddar with slices of another type of tangy cheese, such as havarti, provolone or Gouda. Also, if desired, accent the flavour of the cheese with other fillings, such as thin slices of ham, thinly sliced apple, crisply cooked bacon, caramelized onions or thin slices of ripe tomatoes and avocado.

Quick Tomato Soup

I call this quick tomato soup because there’s not much prep required and it cooks in less than 20 minutes. This soup is good for dunking grilled cheese sandwiches into.

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: About 15 minutes

Makes: About 2 1/2 cups (two to three servings)

1 Tbsp olive oil

1/2 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 small garlic clove, chopped

1 Tbsp all-purpose flour

1 1/2 tsp tomato paste

1/4 tsp dried oregano

1 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock or broth

1 (14 oz./398 mL) can crushed tomatoes

• pinch or 2 granulated sugar

• salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 to 2/3 cup milk or light cream, or to taste

2 tsp chopped parsley (optional)

Place the oil in a small- to medium-sized pot set over medium heat. Add onion and cook four minutes. Mix in garlic and cook one minute more. Now mix in flour, tomato paste and oregano and cook one more minute.

While stirring, slowly pour in the stock, and then add the crushed tomatoes and sugar. Simmer the soup five minutes and then purée in a food processor, or in the pot with an immersion (hand) blender (see Eric’s options).

Return soup to a simmer, and then mix in the milk (or cream). Season the soup with salt and pepper. Sprinkle servings of the soup with chopped parsley, if desired

Eric’s options: If you prefer a more rustic tomato soup, don't bother puréeing it.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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