Note: Can be served cold/vegan.
The ultimate comfort meal—tomato soup with grilled cheese (croutons) on top. Obviously it is best to make this soup in the summer and fall, when fresh garden tomatoes are available, but there are some “acceptable” winter-tomato substitutes such as good-quality organic canned tomatoes or hothouse-grown organic winter tomatoes. Add 1/2 tsp sugar with the tomatoes if you are preparing this soup in winter. The Grilled-Cheese Croutons will appeal to kids as well as grown-ups.
1. Trim off the dark green sections from the leeks and save for making vege¬table stock. Halve the pale green and white sections lengthwise. Rinse under cold running water, pat dry, and cut crosswise into thin pieces.
2. In a large stockpot over low heat, warm the olive oil. Add the leeks, onions, and shallot and cook, stirring, for 10 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to a boil over high heat. Cut a small X in the stem end of each tomato. Drop the tomatoes into the boiling water and blanch them for about 20 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer them to a colander to drain. When cool enough to handle, remove and discard the skin from the tomatoes, remove the core, and coarsely chop the flesh.
4. Add the tomatoes to the stockpot, season with salt and pepper, and cook for 5 minutes. Turn the heat to high, add the vegetable stock, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.
5. Using a food processor or blender and working in batches or using a handheld immersion blender, purée the soup until smooth. Return the soup to the pot, add the cream (if using), and sim¬mer over low heat for about 10 min¬utes. If the soup is too thin or watery, simmer for about another 10 minutes, until slightly thickened. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if needed.
6. Ladle the soup into mugs or bowls and top each with 2 to 4 croutons or a half-slice of open-faced crouton, if you prefer. Garnish with the basil and serve.
TO GO: Prepare the croutons but instead of adding the basil and cheese and broiling them, place them on a baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Pack the basil and cheese separately. At the party, broil the croutons with the cheese and sprinkle with the basil just before serving with the soup.
Grilled-Cheese Croutons (makes 24 to 32)
1. Preheat the broiler.
2. Arrange the bread slices in a single layer on a baking sheet. Using half of the olive oil, lightly brush one side of each slice and broil for 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from the oven, flip the bread, and brush with the remaining oil. Top each slice with a basil leaf and sprinkle with an equal amount of cheese. Broil until the cheese is melted and bubbling.
3. When ready to serve, cut the bread in half and serve the crouton open-faced, or sandwich two pieces of bread together and cut each sandwich into six large or eight small croutons.
TO GO: The croutons can be made about 1 hour ahead, but they are best when made at the last minute. Be sure to cool them before packing them in a tightly sealed container for transport.
Vegetable stock (makes 8 to 10 cups)
1. In a large stockpot, combine all the vegetable scraps, the carrots, celery, peppercorns, bay leaf, and parsley and season with salt. Add enough cold water to just barely cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Turn the heat to low, partially cover, and simmer for about 1 hour, or until the stock is flavorful. Taste the stock. If the flavor is weak, remove the lid and simmer over medium heat for another 10 to 15 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt if needed. Strain the stock and let cool.
2. Store in airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 4 months.