A Soup That Roxane Gay Actually Enjoys

Roxane Gay was not always a fan of soup. For most of her life, the idea of “a hot, savory liquid,” the author says, simply didn’t hold much appeal and, growing up in Omaha, she and her two younger brothers tended to avoid it. Still, on New Year’s Day, their parents would always make soup joumou — a hearty, traditional Haitian dish of squash, beef, potatoes, other vegetables and herbs. It was years later that Gay, now 47, recognized the dish as a delicacy.

She can pinpoint the moment she first tried a soup she enjoyed straightaway: it was an “indescribably beautiful” butternut squash creation, she says, every spoonful more rich and layered than the last, at the restaurant Mélisse in Santa Monica, Calif. “I didn’t want to try it, but it was one of those tasting menu restaurants,” explains Gay, who lives in Los Angeles. “And it was so exquisite, I just thought, ‘Maybe I should give soup a chance.’”

Gay still doesn’t consider herself a huge admirer of most bisques and bouillons, but she occasionally craves thematzo ball soup — emphasis on the fluffy matzo balls — that her wife, the designer Debbie Millman, learned to make from her grandmother. Homemade tomato soup is another relatively new favorite. Gay discovered her preferred recipe for it on The New York Times Cooking app a couple of years ago when she was cold and looking to warm up with a “cozy soup,” she says. (“I was like, ‘Since when do I use the phrase “cozy soup”?’ That’s when I knew I was old.”)

She was drawn to the oniony flavor of the recipe, which was adapted by the Times reporter and cookbook author Jennifer Steinhauer from one used by the upscale Washington, D.C., diner Ted’s Bulletin. Gay likes to use onions of different varieties to keep things interesting and, in a departure from Steinhauer’s rendition, she sometimesadds fresh basil, oregano and garlic for some extra zhuzh. “It’s fairly easy to make,” she says, “but it makes you feel reasonably fancy.”

The grilled cheese she prepares to go with it is also pretty simple and easily adaptable. Any cheese will do — though Gay favors a combination of Gruyère and Cheddar Jack, which melt well and taste good together — and just before the sandwich comes out of the pan, she’ll sometimes add slices of tomato or pickle, the tanginess of which cuts through the fat of the cheese. But the real finishing touch is applied to the outside of just one of the slices of bread, across which she spreads a small knifeful of mayonnaise. “It’s gross, right? I hate mayonnaise,” Gay says. “But it turns out it gives it that really nice golden, toasted look.”

For just her and Millman, the recipe makes a lot of soup. (They currently have leftovers stashed in their freezer.) But when Gay’s parents come to visit from Florida, the eight servings’ worth feels more manageable,and the dish has become a kind of staple; it’s something they don’t traditionally eat, Gay says, but seem to enjoy. Loving payback, in a way, for all the soup joumou.

Mayonnaise on one side of the sandwich gives it “that really nice golden, toasted look,” Gay says.Credit…Scott J. Ross

Roxane Gay’s Take on Jennifer Steinhauer’s Tomato Soup — and Her Own Grilled Cheese Sandwich

(The soup recipe below, apart from Gay’s additions, which are italicized, is a reproduction of the original, which can also be found at New York Times Cooking.)

Tomato Soup (yields 8 servings):

  • ½ pound butter

  • 1 pound onions, about 3 medium, cut into ¼-inch dice (Gay uses a mix of red and yellow onions)

  • ½ cup all-purpose flour

  • 4 28-ounce cans diced tomatoes

  • ¾ cup chicken broth

  • ¼ cup sugar

  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt

  • Pepper, to taste

  • 1 teaspoon celery salt

  • ¾ cup half-and-half

  • 2 tablespoons honey

  • Optional: fresh basil, oregano, sage or garlic

1. In a large pot, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add onions and cook gently, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, about 20 minutes.

2. Add flour and stir until mixture is slightly thickened and pale gold, about 3 minutes; do not allow to brown.

3. Stir in the tomatoes and their juices, chicken broth, sugar, salt, celery salt and pepper. (Gay adds the half-and-half and any additional seasonings here.) Raise heat to medium until the liquid bubbles, then reduce heat to low. Simmer for 30 minutes, scraping the bottom of the pot frequently.

4. Stir in honey. Remove from heat and purée using a hand blender, or allow to cool until no longer steaming and purée in batches in a stand blender. Return to medium heat just until heated through. Serve hot.

Grilled Cheese (yields 1 sandwich):

  • 2 slices of bread

  • 1 teaspoon butter

  • 1 teaspoon mayonnaise

  • 1 ounce Gruyère cheese, grated

  • 1 ounce Cheddar Jack cheese, grated

  • Optional: several slices of tomato or pickle

1. Spread the butter on one side of one piece of bread. On the other piece, spread the mayonnaise on one side. On the opposite sides of each piece, sprinkle the cheese.

2. Lay each piece of bread in the frying pan, butter- and mayonnaise-sides down. Grill face up on medium-low heat until the cheese is melted, about 4 minutes.

3. Flip one piece on top of the other with a spatula to form the sandwich. Cook for about 5more minutes, making sure the bread doesn’t burn.

4. Just before the sandwich is done, but while it’s still on the heat, add the tomato or pickle, if using. Reclose the grilled cheese and let it cook for another minute.

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