Lady Liberty toasting the sunset – picture taken by Andrew through his office window
Monday: Blue Cheese Dip with Endive, Kale Caesar Salad with Chicken and Parmesan Bread
Tuesday: Trout Roe and Fingerling Potatoes, Roasted Shrimp with Chili and Almonds, Kale Salad
Wednesday: Dunnings Gathering
Thursday: Sausage and Escarole Soup – Steelers v. Titans
Friday: Tomato and Fennel Soup with Grilled Cheese Sandwiches (AG)
Saturday: Chicken Breast with Chestnut Stuffing
Sunday: Chicken Breast with Oyster Stuffing (Oyster stuffing gets the nod for Thanksgiving turkey)
(Why stuffed chicken breast two nights in a row? This is kind of weird, but we wanted to decide on the best stuffing for Thanksgiving. The oyster stuffing – basically bread stuffing with oysters mixed in – won, hands down.)
Now that some seriously cold, wet days have set in and the fireplace is back in use, I’m going to give you a recipe for the best tomato soup you have ever tasted and for my approach to cooking a grilled cheese sandwich (also up there, if I do say so myself – and I do, emphatically). The combination makes a wonderful dinner for two, enjoyed in front of a fire while planning Thanksgiving, or watching a movie, or watching the Steelers overwhelm the Tennessee Titans. And I can think of other activities that would not be amiss before, during or after this dinner.
Actually, it was difficult to choose between the Roasted Shrimp with the trout roe and fingerling potatoes and the soup and sandwich, but it is cold and wet – a sort of hail/snow mix is falling from a gray sky in our neighborhood – so the comfort food in front of the fire wins out. You’ll be thankful, if you ever make this dinner. And if you never make this dinner, you will be missing out on a serious culinary pleasure that will take you, if you are from above the Mason-Dixon line, back to your childhood.
TOMATO AND FENNEL SOUP
(adapted from Alex Guarnaschelli, The Home Cook)
Timing: 70 minutes
Ingredients: Serves 5
12 medium plum tomatoes (about 8 of the large honkers on offer at Giant Eagle)
1 28 oz. can of whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes
10 garlic cloves, grated (we used 4)
2 tablespoons of canola oil (we used grapeseed oil)
½ cup dry vermouth
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of sugar (we used just 1 tablespoon)
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 large shallots, thinly sliced
3 medium fennel bulbs outer layer removed, bulbs thinly sliced, some fronds reserved for garnish (we used 2 of the large bulbs on offer at Giant Eagle)
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
½ teaspoon of red pepper flakes (we used nearly a teaspoon)
Ground Black Pepper
1 tablespoon of dried oregano
1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons of panko bread crumbs toasted
½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Slice the fennel and the shallots and grate the garlic (again – we used just 4 cloves of garlic)
Find the spices you’ll need.
Cook the Soup:
Char the Plum Tomatoes:
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium and add the canola oil (we used grapeseed oil). When the oil begins to shiver rapidly in the pan add the tomatoes in a single layer – be careful, they’ll spit at you a bit as they char and their juices come out. You want to blister the skins slightly. Turn as needed to char all over – maybe 12 minutes total time.
Now add the Vermouth to the skillet, season with salt and 1 tablespoon of sugar and lower the heat and cook over low, squishing and breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Simmer gently until the tomatoes break down – 15 minutes or a bit longer. Set aside.
Cook the Soup Base:
In a Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium and add the garlic, shallots, sliced fennel bulbs, fennel seeds and red pepper flakes. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the oregano and the remaining teaspoon of sugar (we didn’t add the sugar). Cook over low until the shallots and garlic become translucent – maybe 5 minutes.
Add the canned tomatoes and their juices and 2 cups of water and bring to a rapid simmer, then turn the heat down to medium low and simmer until the tomatoes start to fall apart – maybe 35 minutes. Taste for seasoning.
Finish the Soup and Serve:
Put about half of the tomato soup into a blender and puree until smooth (you can use a food processor as well). Note: Barbara thought the soup was great, but a little thick. You can puree more of the tomato soup base or just add a little water to thin it out. Stir this puree back into the pot.
Now put all of the plum tomatoes in the blender or processor and puree until smooth. Add the remaining olive oil through the top in a slow steady stream. Taste for seasoning, then pour this puree into the soup pot.
Bring the soup back to a simmer and taste one last time for seasoning. Finely chop some fennel fronds and add them along with the vinegar and the bread crumbs to the pot and stir.
Ladle the soup into bowl and finish with a generous grating of Parmigiano-Reggiano. AND – serve along with grilled cheese sandwiches (see below) to knock the socks and any other restrictive clothing off your honey.
EXTRA Great, No-Frills, Grilled Cheese
Timing: About 10 minutes
Ingredients: This makes one sandwich (you can cook two in the butter called for)
2 Large Slices of Sourdough Bread
2 ounces of sharp cheddar, sliced
2 tablespoons of butter
Assemble the Sandwich:
Put the sliced cheese on one slice of bread, sprinkle with a little kosher salt and top with the other slice of bread, pressing down gently so that the sandwich will hold together.
Cook and Serve:
Heat a large skillet over medium, then add the butter.
When the butter is hot, put the sandwich in the skillet and cook until browned on one side – about 4 minutes. Turn the sandwich over and cook until browned on second side – another 4 minutes or so. Cut the sandwich in half and season lightly with salt and serve.
This is really the way to cook a good grilled cheese. Do not skimp on the butter. If you’re worried about consuming too much fat, just don’t do this too often.