By Debra Caffrey
If the past few months have reminded me of anything, it is that creating stability for our children is paramount. For me, stability always translates into mealtime. It is, sometimes, the only constant. We all need to eat and feed our family, and the routine of getting a meal on the table and sharing it as a unit has been a steady source of reliability for me. Another thing I’ve come to discover during this extra-intense time with my son is that he doesn’t truly know as much about me as I thought he did! This pandemic has opened up the opportunity for a lot of conversations where I have referred to things I’ve experienced, and my son has seemed surprised about what I did in my “pre-mom” days.
I recently decided to create a new family tradition to nurture both our son connecting with our past more as well as our love of cooking and sharing mealtime together. One of us gets to select and cook a memorable meal from our past, and while sharing it for dinner, we also share the story behind the great meal and why it was so significant, detailing the “where,” “when,” “why,” and “how” of it all. For these nights, dinnertime transforms into story time, where my husband and I can share a little more of ourselves with our son and paint a picture of great, funny or crazy memories using the ever-delicious palette of food. It’s become another great way for us to bond, vary up our dinner table conversations, and find a new way for our son to relate to us and realize that we’re not just boring old parents, but that we both have also had experiences that make us more relatable.
This has been a wonderful new way to stay engaged as a family and change up mealtime, which, as we all know, can become monotonous these days. I encourage you to give it a try! If you’re having trouble evoking memories, you can look through old photo albums and journals, or talk with your extended family members about past travels, funny kitchen flops, or holiday traditions. Then, cook a meal that replicates that experience. You can have your kids help you cook, or surprise them with what you’ve made. While eating, share your memories as vividly as you can, using a lot of imagery, details and anecdotes so that your kids can easily picture the scene or circumstance.
The recipe that I’m sharing comes from the first time we tried this new tradition. It is a creamy and cozy tomato basil soup that’s inspired by a wonderful meal I had as a teenager in Salem, Massachusetts, one chilly September years ago. My mother took my best friend and me on a quick trip to Maine’s coast as well as Salem, and we had a blast touring the witch trial museums and all the gothic shops. We stayed at a coastal bed and breakfast and spent the night amusingly scared of the sharp wind that blew the curtains and the sound of creaking hallways and water hitting the rocky shore. We were certain it was haunted! Most memorable to me was how underdressed we were, walking around in sandals, unprepared for how brisk and windy a cold New England September could be. We stopped in a quaint luncheonette that day, and were warmed up by this rich and creamy tomato soup and the best grilled cheese sandwiches we’ve ever had. The soup was so good that all three of us still remember how it tasted decades later. I’ve tried my best to replicate it with this recipe, but even if it isn’t exactly the same, the memories of that haunted, creepy and interesting trip to Salem caught my son’s interest as I retold all the details. So much so that even he gobbled down all his soup and grilled cheese without any negotiations or pickiness. I call that a win!
Cozy Tomato Basil Soup
- ½ stick butter
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
- 1 stalk celery, diced
- ½ bunch fresh basil (about ¾ cup) chopped or torn
- 1 28-oz can diced tomatoes
- 6 fresh tomatoes, diced
- 4 medium red potatoes, cut into 1” cubes
- ¼ cup dry sherry
- 1 quart chicken broth
- ½ pint light cream
- salt and pepper, to taste
In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter and sauté the first five ingredients until the celery is tender. Add fresh tomatoes and sauté for two more minutes. Add sherry. Add canned tomatoes, potatoes, and broth, and simmer until the potatoes are tender, approximately 20 minutes.
Ladle the soup in batches into a blender or food processor and puree until smooth before returning to pot. Continue to puree batches until the entire soup is smooth.
Add cream and salt and pepper. Enjoy!