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News / Life / Clark County Life

Homemade tomato soup, cheesy cheddar toast feels like home

By Monika Spykerman, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 1, 2023, 6:03am
4 Photos
Homemade tomato soup and cheesy toast will warm you up inside.
Homemade tomato soup and cheesy toast will warm you up inside. (Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Whenever I was sick as a girl, my mother made me Campbell’s tomato soup. She’d set up a TV table in the family room, where, home from school for the day, I’d be snuggled up on the couch watching reruns of “Gilligan’s Island.” She’d bring me a bowl of soup and a plate of Wheat Thins with cheddar cheese. I’d drop the cheese into the soup and wait for it to melt and sink to the bottom of the bowl. I’d have a bite of cracker, then scoop a spoonful of warm, cheesy tomato soup into my mouth, and all was temporarily right with the world.

Of course, one of the requisites for childhood is taking such wonders for granted: having a stay-at-home mom who was there to look after me, who let me lie on the couch and watch TV all day while she continued the never-ending tasks of tending house and doing the books for my father’s business. She was not exactly cheerful about nursing my sick self but she was kind. There was love in the act of bringing me soup.

Half a world away from my childhood home on the West Coast, my English husband also grew up eating tomato soup. I don’t know if it was Campbell’s or Heinz (a popular British brand of tomato-based products) or made from scratch by his grandmother Ephegenia, but it was one of his favorite meals. He enjoyed his soup with big, crunchy croutons. He’d float the croutons in the middle of the soup, then sprinkle grated cheddar on top. The cheese would melt and connect the croutons into an archipelago of yummy carbs and cheese.

I always keep a can of tomato soup in my pantry, just in case someone needs comfort. However, in my five decades on the planet, I’ve never once tried making tomato soup from scratch. Why not? Because it’s much more trouble to assemble ingredients and chop onions and tomatoes and simmer the soup for hours than it is to simply open a can. Fortunately, it’s my job to get into trouble in the kitchen, so here’s my recipe, which I completely made up based on my tomato soup whims. This is not necessarily what I think you should do. This is merely a record of what I did, and you can take it as inspiration or a cautionary tale.

To start with, I did take one shortcut, and that’s to use canned tomatoes rather than fresh, since we’re months away from tomato season and tomatoes are not at peak flavor. The other shortcut I took (which turned out to be a long cut) was to blend the ingredients before cooking the soup rather than blending the hot soup after simmering for an hour or so. It’s all blended together at the end, so why not blend it together at the beginning? I was a little worried about pouring scalding hot soup into a blender and then having something go wrong and ending up with soup-degree burns on my face.

I chopped up a whole onion and two cloves of garlic and put them in the blender along with two 14.5-ounce cans of diced fire-roasted tomatoes. I added an array of spices that I happened to have on hand: paprika, lemon pepper, umami mushroom seasoning and a teaspoon of za’atar, a Middle Eastern herb blend that I discovered recently when making hummus. You should use whatever spices appeal to you: parsley, sage, thyme, oregano or even cilantro. I also added a tablespoon of tamari, soy sauce’s less-salty cousin, and ½ teaspoon salt. I blended everything together until it was nice and smooth and then poured it into a stockpot with 1 quart of chicken broth (though you can certainly use vegetable), about 3 tablespoons of butter and a chicken bouillon cube. I set it to simmer on low.

I found out the reason it’s best to do the blending after the soup is cooked, and that’s because it will produce a smoother texture. I thought that blending everything into a slurry would make it cook more quickly, but even after simmering for an hour, there were still tiny crunchy bits in the soup. Not nice. However, after about two hours, the soup finally mellowed and thickened. I added about 1/3 cup cream, just enough to give it a creamy edge.

I served the soup with cheddar cheese toasts. I’m sure many recipes exist and I encourage you to look them up rather than winging it as I did (even though my toasts turned out scrumptiously). I sliced a loaf of Pugliese bread into ½-inch slices, buttered both sides of each slice rather heavily, and squished a generous amount of grated cheddar cheese into the butter. I then fried the cheese-covered slices in a cast iron skillet. It felt wrong to put cheese right against the pan, but after a about minute, the cheese crisped up and I was able to forcefully shove a metal turner under the cheesy toast and flip it over. A note to novices: You can’t see the cheese crisping up underneath the toast. You just have to believe it’s happening. In the end, what you’ll get is like a cheese sandwich turned inside out, because the soft, buttery bread is on the inside and the toasted cheese forms a crunchy exterior. It is the absolute perfect thing to dip in hot tomato soup.

At the dinner table, my husband slurped the soup right up with two pieces of cheesy toast and had some more the next day for lunch with croutons and cheddar cheese. I thought I caught a glimpse of his boyish face, all pink cheeks and big ears. I hoped he could taste the love.

Tomato Soup

1 32-ounce box chicken broth

2 14.5-ounce cans of diced, fire-roasted tomatoes

1 whole medium onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic

3-4 tablespoons butter

1 cube chicken bouillon

1 tablespoon tamari or soy sauce

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon umami mushroom seasoning

¼ teaspoon each paprika and lemon pepper

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary

1 teaspoon za’atar

1/3 to ½ cup cream (optional)

Put butter in pot. Add onion and garlic and sauté until beginning to soften. Add all other ingredients and simmer for 1 hour or until all ingredients are soft. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Put in blender or food processor and blend until quite smooth. Do not tighten lid but allow some steam to vent; cover opening with dish towel if necessary. Mix in cream or drizzle on top when serving.

Cheesy Toasts

6 ½-inch slices of Pugliese or other white, crusty bread

Room temperature butter, enough to generously cover both sides of each slice

Grated cheddar cheese enough to generously cover each side of each slice

Butter each slice of bread on both sides. Firmly press grated cheese into the butter. Fry in skillet on medium heat for about a minute each side or until cheese is crispy. Serve while warm.