[Leek and Potato Soup]
The reason for this soup drought is that I’ve mostly been making variations of soups already featured on this blog, or über-simple combinations of whatever vegetables cried for salvation in my refrigerator.
Today’s recipe is also very simple, I’ll grant you that, but it is a deceptive kind of simple. The leek and potato soup is among the greatest classics of French homemade soups — an inexpensive, filling, and becalming concoction that is particularly welcome on a Sunday night when you’ve been feeling under the otherwise balmy weather.
It is a soup I am very fond of, in fact it was the very first one I tackled as a budding soup maker in my Californian kitchen. It was a sobering failure — I muffled the leeks’ flavor by using too many potatoes, burned my hand with the spluttering soup, naively assumed my food processor to be watertight, and repainted my kitchen cabinets in pale green — that took years of therapy to get over, but just one recipe.
It comes from my friend Sophie‘s admirable book La Table végétale, in which she organizes her vegetable-centric recipes according to the life cycle of the plant — I can’t get over how clever, how poetic that is.
She writes her way onward and upward from what lies below the ground (potatoes, beets, garlic), to what hovers just above (mushrooms, asparagus, leeks), to leaves (nettles, lettuce, vine leaves), flowers (artichokes, zucchini blossoms, borage), fruits (hokkaido squash, cucumbers, peppers), and back to the seeds (pink beans, chestnuts, corn) that will ultimately return to the earth.
It is a brilliant book, wherein Sophie distills her encyclopedic knowledge of the cuisines and ingredients of this world, broadening the reader’s horizon, teaching and explaining without ever sounding superior or academic.
Among the well-traveled recipes that propose to elope with your tastebuds to Budapest, Athens, Singapore, Colombo, Lagos, Casablanca, Bogota, or Shanghai, this one propelled me to the stove: a leek and potato soup in its simplest embodiment.
Sophie explains it is an heirloom from her family in Haute-Normandie, and what makes it special is that the most tender of the leek greens get finely sliced and briefly poached in the hot soup for texture. (If you own a miniature deep-frier — and if Maxence gets his way, I may soon have one, too — I imagine you could fry the thin strips and crown the bowls with these delicate leek tempuras.)
Because the soup doesn’t call for any artifice — it is just leeks and potatoes cooked properly –, it is of course in your best interest to use the most lovingly grown vegetables you can find. I got excellent results with sharpie-thin leeks and Monalisa potatoes from the organic farmers’ market on boulevard des Batignolles.
Post-scriptum: I just found out that the UN have declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato, to promote this hidden treasure that feeds the hungry.
Soupe Poireaux Pommes de Terre
– 1 kg (2.2 pounds) leeks, preferably organic, the thinner the better
– 450 g (1 pound) potatoes (Monalisa, Bintje, Yukon gold), smooth and firm, about 4 medium
– 1/2 to 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
– Freshly ground pepper
– Crème fraîche, for serving (optional)
Trim the leeks, keeping about 6 cm (2 1/2 inches) of the green part. If your leeks are on the thick side, remove and discard the often fibrous outer layer. Carve a deep slit all along the length of the leeks, driving your knife almost to the other side, but not quite, to expose all the layers. Run each leek in turn under a stream of cold water, green part down, to wash away the sand and grit. Squeeze off the excess water.
Separate the white from the green parts. Discard the toughest green leaves, and set aside the most tender. Slice the leek whites thinly. Peel and dice the potatoes. Put the sliced leeks and diced potatoes in a saucepan and add 1 liter (4 cups) cold water. Bring to the boil over medium-high heat.
Season with salt, lower the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.
Purée the soup using a blender, stick blender (my choice), or food mill. Taste, adjust the seasoning, and return over low heat.
Cut the reserved leek greens in superfine strips with a sharp chef’s knife. When the soup returns to a simmer, add the leek strips, stir, and remove from the heat. Cover and let rest for 5 minutes. Serve hot, with a spoonful of crème fraîche and a few resolute turns of the pepper mill.