The childhood pleasure of tomato soup with a side of grilled cheese had been enshrined in my mind since Id last had it, decades ago. A tart, bright tomato soup and a crispy sandwich with an oozing interior: No wonder they are an iconic match.
It was time to reintroduce myself to its charms.
I dug up the soup recipe I remembered from my grade-school years, a simple brew of canned tomatoes, onion, cream and chicken broth simmered until thick. Then I fried buttered whole-wheat bread with cheddar until the cheese dripped.
With great anticipation, I dipped the golden corners of the sandwich into the bowl. But, alas, the treasured soup was bland. And while I still enjoyed the grilled cheese, it actually tasted a lot better without the soggy dunk. So much for nostalgia.
Thats when I remembered a recipe I adore from The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook. That version, spiked with fennel and Pernod, is livelier and more sophisticated than your usual tomato soup. It has a more complex flavor, too, with the fennel bulb adding a pronounced sweetness, along with a very gentle licorice flavor brought out by the Pernod.
I reworked the recipe slightly, changing the proportions (the original recipe called for two sticks of butter, which I reduced) and adding a little chili powder to the mix. To serve alongside, I broiled several slim croutons seasoned with fennel seeds and topped with Brie (Camembert would work well, too). I made sure the croutons were as crisp as crackers so that they would not instantly turn to mush when floated on the soup.
The whole thing wasnt any harder to make or more time-consuming than my grade-school soup and sandwich. But it was a far more elegant dish, bright-flavored, warming, fancy enough for company but still fun to eat because of the cheesy crouton boats bobbing on the surface.
As a leftover, the soup was equally good without the croutons. Though a butter-soaked grilled cheese sandwich, eaten alongside but not dipped, would have been nice, too.
Tomato-Fennel Soup with Brie Toasts
Adapted from The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins.
7 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium fennel bulbs, cleaned and thinly sliced, fronds chopped and reserved
1 large onion, halved, peeled and thinly sliced
2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
3 tablespoons Pernod
2 28-ounce packages or cans chopped tomatoes packed in puree
1 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon black pepper
6 baguette slices, 1/2-inch thick
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
3 ounces Brie, thinly sliced
MELT 6 tablespoons butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add fennel, onion and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Toss to combine. Reduce heat to medium-low. Partly cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are very tender, about 20 minutes. Stir in garlic and chili powder; cook 1 minute. Stir in Pernod and cook until almost completely evaporated, about 3 minutes.
POUR in tomatoes, 1 1/2 cups water and the stock. Bring to a simmer and cook gently, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Season with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and the black pepper. Puree soup in batches using a blender or immersion blender until smooth.
TRANSFER soup back to pot over medium heat; simmer until slightly thickened, 5 to 10 minutes more. Scrape down sides and bottom of pot occasionally. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm.
HEAT oven to 350 degrees. Spread bread slices on a large baking sheet. Bake until lightly golden, about 10 minutes.
TOAST fennel seeds in a small skillet over medium heat until fragrant and lightly colored, 2 to 3 minutes. Melt in remaining 1 tablespoon butter.
ADJUST oven temperature to broil and position rack 6 inches from heat. Brush toasts with fennel-seed butter and top with Brie. Return to oven and broil until bubbly and golden, 1 to 3 minutes. (Check every minute or so to see that they are not burning.) Ladle soup into bowls and top with a cheese crouton. Garnish with fennel fronds.
Yield: 6 servings