Julia Child called Potage Parmentier (potato & leek soup) "simplicity itself." Julie Powell called it "inexplicably good." The authors of Porcini Chronicles called it "the miracle soup."
In her first chapter, Powell meditates on the act of peeling potatoes ("There is clarity in the act of peeling a potato, a winnowing down to one sure, true way.") and on the simplicity of this soup. She says simplicity "sounds like just what the doctor ordered," but then admits that "'simple' is not exactly the same as 'easy'." She writes:
Lulled by the calming music of ice clattering in the cocktail shaker, I began to ponder; this life we had going for ourselves, Eric and I, it felt like the opposite of Potage Parmentier. It was easy enough to keep on with the soul-sucking jobs; at least it saved having to make a choice. But how much longer could I take such an easy life? Quicksand was easy. Hell, death was easy. Maybe that's why my synapses had started snapping at the sight of potatoes and leeks in the Korean deli. Mayve that was what was plucking deep down in my belly whenever I thought of Julia Child's book. Maybe I needed to make like a potato, winnow myself down, be a part of something that was not easy, just simple.
I like that last sentence. I think that might be what I need, too--to have a life that isn't necessarily easy...just simple, pure.
In deciding to start with this recipe, I figured I should make Child's original, as a kind of homage to Julia & Julie, my inspirations for this endeavor. Therefore, I needed to get my hands on a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I didn't want to purchase a new $30 edition, especially since Powell was inspired by her mother's well-worn 1967 edition. So, this morning I ordered a used 1966 edition for about $17 from Amazon. I don't plan on attempting all, or even most, of the recipes but it will come in handy when I do make a few French dishes that I would like to try...like boeuf bourguignon, bouillabaisse, cassoulet, souffles, creme anglaise, and various sauces.
Anyway, since I still didn't have my hands on the potato soup recipe for tonight, I decided to stop by Barnes & Nobel this afternoon to browse through Child's cookbook and jot down the recipe.
Side note: Being in a bookstore puts me in a state of absolute bliss. I spent an hour there today, browsing cookbooks mostly and successfully talking myself out of buying a one that contained nothing but various macaroni & cheese recipes.
One of the reasons I chose the potato soup recipe first is that it only calls for five ingredients: potatoes, leeks, water, salt, and heavy cream (and this is good for my wallet, which doesn't contain that much cash at the moment). Plus, leftover soup is one of the few leftovers I will actually eat, and I am conferencing with my students all week in a chilly, window-less office, so these leftovers will come in handy.
I peeled & chopped a pound of potatoes (3 russets), finely chopped and washed a pound of leeks (one stalk, minus the tough green parts), then boiled both together in 7 cups of water (+ a tablespoon of kosher salt) for 50 minutes. The Self-Proclaimed Chef in me wanted to saute the leeks in olive oil and garlic first, but the Food Purist in me fought off the urge and stuck with the actual recipe. When everything simmered into a monochromatic pot of mush, I got in there with a big spoon and starting mashing chunks against the side of the pot. (The recipe suggests also using food mill, which I didn't have, but cautions against using a blender or food processor.) This proved to be a bit irritating, so I starting scooping some of the soup into a bowl, mashing it with the spoon, and pouring it back into the pot. I decided to leave some chunks for texture's sake.
At this point, I decided to eat a bit of the soup. After all, here it was--Potage Parmentier in its purest form (the addition of heavy cream or butter at the end is listed as "optional" in the original recipe). Surprisingly, it was really good! And I was a bit skeptical because besides the potatoes and leeks there was only water (instead of chicken stock) and salt (with no other seasonings). The soup had a pleasing creamy mouthfeel ("It was potatoey poetry in my mouth," as they might say on Iron Chef) and a satisfying potato/onion taste that was tinged with saltiness, but I knew it would be even better with a few additions. Finally, off the heat, I stirred in 6 tablespoons of heavy cream and 2 tablespoons of melted bacon grease (though 1 would have been sufficent, as the soup got an oil spill like sheen on the top...still it did add a nice other dimension of flavor).
Ok, this is where the Purist lost the battle. The recipe says that the addition of "4-6 Tb of whipping cream or 2-3 Tb of softened butter" is optional, but everything I've read online says that the addition is essential. Not being able to decide whether to use cream or butter, I decided to use both, halfing the suggested addition of each. However, when I got home from the grocery store (and after having mowed the lawn, thus wearing stretchy pants and being all sweaty & grassy, and not wanted to venture out again), I discovered that I was out of butter. I was disappointed...until I eyed the pan with leftover bacon grease from breakfast. Jackpot. I'll just replace the butter addition with some of the grease. That can't be too bad, right? I was thinking before that it would be tasty to top a bowl of the finished soup with crispy, crumbled bacon anyway (and even a small smattering of cheese).
I resisted the bacon/cheese topping but did sprinkle my bowl of steamy creaminess with a bit of chopped rosemary (the recipe suggests parsley or chives as an option, but I didn't have either of those and wanted to use up the fresh rosemary I had in the fridge before it expired) & a few turns of freshly ground black pepper. All in all, I am very happy with my first new recipe. The soup was tasty and filling (albeit not very health-conscious). It would make a nice dinner paired with a mixed green salad with citrus vinaigrette and some sauvignon blanc.
I now understand what Powell meant when she said that while this soup is simple, it's not all that easy. I started cutting potatoes around 7:30 and didn't sit down with a finished bowl until nearly 9:00. Still, I can appreciate how a few very humble ingredients can come together to make something delicious.
What a good recipe for life as well.