My best pal Linda Walls and I have been sharing family stories for years. It’s a tradition that started more than a decade ago when we realized we were born the same month of the same year in the maternity ward of Newark’s Presbyterian Hospital to military wife moms.
That realization led to us to uncover more similarities: our families both left north Jersey when we were toddlers and migrated down Route 35 to the Jersey Shore. We went to small public high schools that were arch football rivals situated just an inlet away from each other.
We each came from a family of three children – in hers there were two girls and a boy, in mine, two boys and a girl though she’s the youngest of her trio and I’m the oldest of mine.
There was also some shared ethnic heritage – mainly Irish and Italian – which endowed us with a love of words and food.
Since we both are writers, we continue to love the words, but it’s food that most often opens the floodgates of memory and starts those “remember when” sessions rolling.
It happened just this week as we were talking about Lent. Memories of the meatless meals our mothers made warmed the conversation. We were especially pleased to recall steaming bowls of tomato soup accompanied by open-face grilled cheese sandwiches prepared by our elders.
“The ultimate comfort food,” Linda called them.
She remembered how her Aunt Rose created the sandwiches – slices of American cheese topped with tomatoes on white toast – “It had to be white bread,” she remembered – and then set them on a baking sheet in the oven under the broiler.
My mom was more apt to use a sharp Cheddar cheese and sometimes added thinly sliced onions but the basic recipe was the same.
As for the soup, well, in both our cases, it was Campbell’s out of a can which our elders mixed with milk. And frankly, we both remember savoring the uncomplicated essence of it.
For this first Lenten recipe of 2007, the recipe for an open-face grilled cheese sandwich adheres completely to those produced by my mom and Linda’s Aunt Rose. The tomato soup is a product of tweaking a couple of Internet recipes with ingredients listed on tomato soup cans. It’s a bit tangy and when I served it recently at home, my family enjoyed it and so did Linda’s.
Makes 8 servings
— 1/4 cup unsalted butter
— 2 small onions, thinly sliced
— 2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
— 3 cloves garlic, minced
— 2 – 35 oz. cans plain stewed tomatoes with juice
— 4 cups chicken stock
— 2 cups heavy cream
— salt, pepper and sugar to taste
Directions: Melt butter in soup pot and add onions, carrots and garlic, cook for ten minutes. Add the tomatoes with juice, sugar, salt and pepper and cook five minutes and then add stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and partially cover and cook for another 45 minutes. Puree the soup in a food processor, return it to the pot, add the cream, and reheat until hot but not boiling.
Open-face grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches
— 8 slices of white bread
— 3 tbsp. butter or soft spread, room temperature
— 2 large tomatoes, sliced
— 2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
Directions: preheat the broiler, place the bread on a baking sheet and broil until golden on one side. Turn the bread slices over and spread generously with butter. Top with tomato slices and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top with cheese. Broil under the broiler for four to five minutes or until the cheese melts and turns a bit golden brown.