Thursday, September 30, 2010

EVOLUTION OF A SOUP

At lunch with my friend Cathy earlier this week (while eating a bowl of fantastic Wedding Soup at Luigi’s) we got to talking about soup.

Normally food is not a general topic of conversation with Cathy, she eats and enjoys her food, but unlike me she does not like to cook.  She says she doesn't like to cook because she isn't good at it and I counter her statement with maybe she just needs practice. My blatant comment to her that “soup is EASY” was met with raised eyebrows and obvious non-belief. She mumbled something about a disastrous tomato-basil soup she’d tried making this summer and then, because it didn’t come out well, promptly gave up on soup altogether as something too difficult to do.

By the end of the conversation I offered to have her over and we’d learn to make “soup”. Cathy mentioned the Potato Leek Soup I make often to share with her, so that was to be on our agenda. We also made a butternut squash soup and a summer squash soup because I had the squash on hand from my City Fresh share and had to do something with them soon. More on those in a day or two……

Soup is one of those things that can be extremely simple or extravagantly complicated. Case in point is the “Potato Soup” we made.

As a kid, my Mom made Potato Soup often for Saturday lunches. Served with a hot dog along side, this was one of my favorite meals. Helping her make this was how I learned to peel potatoes (because it never would have occurred to Mom to leave the skins on). Her soup was the simple soup she must have learned to make from her Mother while growing up on a farm in the years following the Depression where they grew potatoes and milked their own goats and cows, but probably did not have things like celery or leeks or garlic growing in the kitchen garden.

Simple ingredients for
Mom's Simple Potato Soup
Mom’s recipe – cube 1 medium sized potato (peeled) per person.  Over medium-high heat, cover potatoes with water to cover, boil in water till soft, add a little milk, season with salt and pepper and serve.

This is simple food at its most basic - economical, easy to make and tummy-filling when there isn’t a lot of stuff hanging around your pantry because you can’t afford to buy it. Potatoes were (and still are) cheap, everyone had milk in the fridge, and salt and pepper were THE seasonings for absolutely everything we ate. While visiting with my folks in Florida last winter, Mom served this same soup for lunch one day (complete with a hot dog along side) and I felt like a kid again eating this very elementary meal.

This week, I worked with Cathy to teach her the basic potato soup that I make now. While in culinary class we learned the classic French potato leek soup known as Vicyssoise. Traditionally served cold as the starter to an elegant French meal, we served it warm in class and that’s the way I like it best. No hot dogs needed here, this soup is thick and hearty and with a piece or two of crusty ciabatta bread to dip in the broth, makes an excellent lunch. Add a classic French-style Tartine and a salad and you have a light dinner.

I do not follow the recipe from culinary class too closely, this is my version and it is delicious. No offense to classic French cuisine, but I seldom fool with things like bouquet garni and sweating vegetables for 45 minutes as is a bit too long for my busy world. I did, however, learn to appreciate the Leek – a vegetable that, before class, was a total mystery.

Contrary to most of my recipe postings, this makes enough for 4 hearty servings.  Soup is one of those things that can easily be shared with others.  We doubled this recipe and I brought half to share with a friend at work who has had some family medical issues at home and may not have the time to put the stove on for a nice pot of soup. Obviously I've shared this with Cathy in the past and whatever ends up staying in my own fridge makes an easy supper when I rush home only to have to turn around 20 minutes later to leave again. 

One other note - do not try to freeze this soup.  Potatoes in general do not freeze well.  They become grainy once frozen, especially in a soup like this where texture is a big part of the experience.

 POTATO LEEK SOUP

More ingredients make a more
traditional French Soup
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 stalks celery, cut in ½ -inch dice
2 leeks, white parts only, washed well, thinly sliced *
2 shallots, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ pounds Yukon gold potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
4 cups Chicken Stock
1 dried bay leaf
½ cup milk
¼ cup heavy cream
4 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Heat the olive oil and butter in a medium saucepan. Add the celery, leeks, shallots, and garlic, season lightly with salt and pepper; cook on medium heat until soft, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not brown.

Add the potatoes, stock, and bay leaf. Bring mixture to a boil, and then reduce to a gentle simmer. Cook until potatoes are very tender, about 20 minutes. Remove bay leaf.


Using an immersion blender, process the soup to a desired consistency. Slowly stir in milk, cream and chopped parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot.

This basic soup recipe is also a great starting point for heartier additions. Potatoes are basically a blank slate – they adapt really well to all kinds of flavors. Think about the other potato-ey things you eat and incorporate those flavors into this soup and you could make a new version every week for weeks on end.

Here are some suggestions I offer:
  • Thin the soup a bit - skip using the blender - and add some sliced, cooked sausage and a sprinkle of hot pepper flakes.
  • Thin the soup a bit and add some shredded cheese to melt into the soup – cheddar or montery jack, and top with some bacon crumbles, sour cream and a few chives for a loaded baked potato version
  • Add other vegetables to the pot as the potatoes cook – add shredded greens, sliced asparagus or corn kernels (one of these, not all in one pot)
  • Go Greek – add a bit of lemon peel and fresh parsley at the end of the cooking time – garnish with feta cheese
  • Change up the regular potatoes for half sweet potatoes and add a sprinkle of cinnamon, nutmeg and a tablespoon of brown sugar – garnish with sour cream
 * cleaning a leek is easy but you do have to be thorough.  I slice off the ends, cut the leek in half lengthwise, chop into small pieces and dump into a bowl of cold water.  Swish the leeks around in the water so the sand falls to the bottom of the bowl.  Scoop out the leeks and drain on a clean towel.

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