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TODAY

Tuesday, August 11

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Despite the cool summer, the air is beginning to change. Nights are cool enough to need a blanket, the sun is setting earlier and earlier, and cravings of comfort food come seeping into the menu. I'm passing up the back-to-school leftovers and heading straight for the ingredients necessary to make grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.

A couple of pieces of white bread, two slices of Kraft processed-cheese singles and a can of just-add-water-and-heat tomato soup will get me by in a pinch, especially when I'm feeling extra-nostalgic for my early days. My tastes have changed since I was five, though, and so has my grilled cheese and tomato soup fix. I'll show you how to make a huge pot of tomato soup so you can freeze it in single-serve bowls that can easily be thawed and heated to go with your fresh grilled-cheese sandwich sure to make the adult in you delighted.

There are many people who swear that any sandwich that's different than the greasy, squished and probably burnt one your parents probably gave you as a kid isn't a real grilled-cheese sandwich. I say that nostalgia food is fine on occasion, but there's something extra-special about joining some whole-grain bread and smoked gouda to eat with a soup made from tomatoes you've roasted in your oven with carmelized leeks and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Since the basic ingredients are very simple, you can easily substitute what you like with what you don't like and come away with a personalized version of adult comfort food.

Different areas of the country seem to have different versions of the process involved in making a grilled cheese sandwich. The version I grew up with was the cheapest bread, cheese slice and margarine grilled till almost black, squished till very thin, and greasy enough for me to torture my little brother with my slimy fingers.

Down South, many seem to have spread the insides of the bread with mayo. A sprinkle of red chili powder on the outside of the sandwich before grilling seems common in Texas. Some people insist that a slice of tomato or even pickle slices are part of the typical sandwich. Some people in Brooklyn even swear by making grilled cheese sandwiches with their bread dipped in egg mixture, à la French toast.

Whatever you like on it, or with it, doesn't matter. As long as you know how to get your ingredients to work together to give you the tastiest sandwich you possibly can. The three main ingredients: bread, oil/butter and cheese.

Bread: Anything will work. However, if it is just a little bit stale the air pockets in the bread will be bigger and the cheese will be able to soak into the bread a bit more. A sturdy bread will hold its shape better than Wonderbread. Grains or seeds on the bread are fine as long as you're OK with them being toasted and possibly burnt.

Oil/butter: Traditionalists use real butter, and lots of it. It's fine and it gives a hearty rich taste to the bread. But expect to go into a food coma when you're done eating. I'm not a huge fan of eating hydrgenated vegetable oils after I learned how they're made. (Talk about weird science.) However, olive oil has no cholesterol, is low in saturated fat, and imparts a milder and slightly nutty taste to the bread. If you're using a mild flavored cheese, olive oil will interfere with the taste less than butter will.

Cheese: Ah, glorious cheese. Anything goes, as long as it will melt without separating. Sure the processed cheeses suffice, but their flavor is mostly due to the salt content, not the cheese, and we get back to the hydrogenated oil thing. I think a mixture of two cheeses will work best. A soft cheese that melts quickly and a harder cheese with a strong flavor.

The last thing to discuss is how to actually make the sandwich. Some people swear by putting lots of butter in the skillet, heating it to medium and cooking the sandwich on both sides in the pool of butter. Now that I'm over chasing my brother around with my greasy fingers, I'm also over deep-fried cheese sandwiches, which is what this reminds me of. Since I'm using olive oil instead of butter I have to get a liquid evenly onto a piece of bread. It's easier than you think.

There's this amazing kitchen gadget called a Misto. It's a plastic-lined aluminum can with a sprayer attachment that lets you spray a fine mist of oil onto your surface. You can save $14-or-so dollars by picking up a small squirt bottle, washing it very, very well with hot, soapy water and filling it up partway with olive oil. Since sunlight causes oil to go rancid quickly, you'll want to store this in a cupboard if you can't find an opaque spray bottle.

Then there's the matter of what pan to use. My mom used a griddle or a skillet, or even a sauce-pan if it was there. But thanks to Alton Brown, I've discovered a new trick. Use two cast-iron skillets to create your own sandwich press. You need one to fit inside the other so the larger of the two skillets will be on the bottom and the second-skillet, heated to high on a neighboring burner, will be placed on top of your sandwich so the top and the bottom cook at the same time.

Let's get down to business:

Scrumdillyumptious Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
2 slices of Baltic Bakery's rye bread or another dense, hearty bread
1/8 cup of shredded smoked gouda cheese
1/8 cup of shredded gruyere cheese
Dijon mustard
2 squirts of olive oil (1 per slice)

Place your two cast iron skillets on your cooktop. Heat the smaller to medium-high or high heat. Heat the larger to medium or medium-high heat. If you want a crustier toast, go with the higher heat. Spread the dijon mustard on each half of the inside of the bread slices. Squirt each slice of bread with one fine spray of olive oil. Once a drop of water dances across the skillet and disappears without puddling, you're ready to cook. Place one slice of bread in your skillet, oiled side down. Sprinkle the cheese on top of the bread. Place the second slice of bread on top of the sandwich, oiled side up. Turn off the heat under the burner of your second skillet, spray the bottom of this skillet with oil and slowly place it on top of the sandwich. Stand back and listen. In about 3-5 minutes you should be able to hear a bit of cheese escape from the sandwich and begin to sizzle on the skillet. It's probably done. Slowly remove the top skillet (you may need to separate it with a metal spatula if your bread soaked up too much oil). Remove it to a plate, wait ten seconds for the cheese to set, cut in half (longways or across, whichever you prefer) and eat.

If you don't have cast-iron skillets, all is not lost. If the bottom of your top skillet is heavily textured you may want to give it a couple of squirts of olive oil to make sure that you're not cleaning cheese bits out with a toothbrush. You'll also need a 16 ounce can of something to place in the center of the top skillet to give you the weight you need.

Of course this is only half the meal, right? A grilled cheese sandwich without tomato soup is lonely, isn't it? Of course. This is the perfect time to make homemade tomato soup with fresh tomatoes. We're at the end of the season for tomatoes but you should be able to still get some vine-ripened tomatoes at your local farmer's market. I like plum tomatoes for cooking. They don't have a lot of pulp, the seeds are easier to remove, and the flavor seems more concentrated.

Yumdillyicious Tomato Soup
10 plum tomatoes, sliced in half lengthwise (you can scoop out the seeds if you like)
1/4 cup olive oil
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed with the side of a knife
Salt and pepper
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 large leek, sliced in thin rounds and cleaned
3 cups of vegetable stock
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil or thyme
1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 cups of heavy cream

Preheat your oven to 325°. Place the tomatoes in a large baking dish, cut side up. Nestle the garlic cloves between the tomatoes and drizzle half the olive oil over top. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Roast uncovered for 25-30 minutes.

Heat the rest of the olive oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and leeks and cook until the onions are extra-soft and turning golden, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, garlic, and juices from the roasting pan to the pot. Stir in the vegetable stock and the fresh herbs. Cook for 20 minutes and stir occasionally.

In a small saucepan, cook the heavy cream over low heat until the cream reduces. This should take 15-20 minutes. Use a hand-held blender to puree the tomato mixture in the pot. Or you could let the soup cool slightly and place inside a regular blender. To keep from decorating your kitchen red, you will want to do this in at least two batches. If you want a very smooth soup, strain the tomato mixture using cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer. Add the tomato mixture back to the pot, add the reduce cream and cook for five minutes. Ladle into bowls, serve with the grilled cheese, and enjoy while watching Sesame Street.

If you want to leave out the cream you can. It serves to thicken the soup a bit but you can make that happen by pureeing and straining the soup and then cooking it over medium-high heat uncovered until the soup has the thickness you desire. You could also stir a teaspoon of corn starch into a quarter-cup of cold water. Stir it briskly with a fork to remove all the lumps. Now stir a spoon or two of the tomato mixture into the bowl and then stir that mixture slowly into the pot. You'll have to let it boil for a few minutes before you know how thick this will make it. If it seems too thick, add some vegetable broth or water to the soup. Adding a small handful of rolled oats and cooking for about 10 minutes will also thicken up the soup, and get a little more fiber into your diet.

Fall is all about comfort cooking. But you don't have to give up your comfort foods in order to eat fresh and seasonal food that is good for you. I know it's hard to make a well-balanced meal every night for dinner, but if you can cook larger amounts than is necessary and then freeze them in single-serve portions, you'll be saving money, eating healthy and enjoying the smells that come out of your kitchen. Winter lasts a very long time in this city, but if you promise to cook for your friends, they just might be tempted to brave the weather so you don't have to.

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