Saturday, June 19, 2010

Potato and leek soup

Where one chooses to Bunbury is a matter of personal preference. Some choose the country, say in Shropshire; others Bunbury in town. Bunburying can be exhausting, thus the need to restore one’s self with soup. In my mind, nothing works better than this simple yet perfect dish, potato and leek soup. It contains, apart from salt, four ingredients: water, potatoes, leeks and butter. This soup has a special place in my heart because it was one of the first things that I learned how to cook.

The recipe is from Richard Olney’s Simple French Food [1974]. I came to this classic work by mistake thinking it was a primer. The food that Olney presents is simple in spirit but not necessarily in execution. Take for example cassoulet—certainly rustic but not simple to prepare. Simple French Food surveys traditional foods served in home kitchens and country restaurants across France. Olney worried these regional French dishes were at risk of fading away. His recipes collected throughout France favor the south.

I gravitated to his recipe for Potage aux Poireaux et Pommes de Terre because it looked easy to make. It is. Olney wrote that the soup “is nothing more than potatoes and leeks more or less finely sliced or cut up, depending on the bonne femme, boiled in salted water, and served, a piece of butter being added then to the soup….” Certainly simple, but Olney added: “were my vice and curiosity more restrained, I, too, would adore to eat it every evening of my life.”

You can learn a lot about cooking by making this soup every night for weeks and weeks. Inevitably there is improvisation. Alternating thick and thin potato slices changes the soup’s texture. Thinly slicing the leeks creates a more refined dish while adding roughly peeled potato slices leads to a more rustic soup. You learn that the quality of every ingredient is essential. Adding other ingredients, such as fresh tarragon, or replacing some of the water with chicken stock produces something wonderful but different.

Here is Olney’s recipe.

  • 2 quarts boiling water
  • salt
  • 1 pound potatoes, peeled, quartered lengthwise, sliced
  • 1 pound leeks, tough green parts removed, cleaned, finely sliced
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter

Add the vegetables to the salted, boiling water and cook, covered, at a light boil until the potatoes begin to cook apart—or, until, when one is pressed against the side of the saucepan with a wooden spoon, it offers no resistance to crushing—about ½ hour to 40 minutes, depending on the potatoes. Add the butter at the moment of serving, after removal from the heat.

Olney makes no mention of pepper, but I grind some in when I add the butter. I found that testing the potatoes at approximately 20 minutes is a good idea. Overtime I reduced the 2 quarts of liquid to 6 cups. No matter what amount or type of liquid you use, salt to taste. Seasoning dishes with potatoes is tricky because potatoes can take a lot of salt. Start with a light hand as you can always add more salt as you go. As a benchmark I found that approximately 1½ teaspoons of sea salt works well when using a ratio of 4 cups water to 2 cups of low-sodium chicken stock.

Finally a word about the butter; use the best you can afford. If available, I recommend Straus Family Creamery’s butter, which is a local product in my region of California. This butter tastes outstanding.