"If any one element of French cooking can be called important, basic and essential, that element is soup."--Louis Diat, chef for the Ritz-Carlton
After a mostly mild summer, with just a few hot days here and there, we're having our first real heat wave in my neck of the woods. Naturally, that presents a challenge when it comes to mealtimes, since one cannot subsist on ice cream--alas!--and an endless array of salads and cold sandwiches can pall faster than you'd think!
Fortunately, I discovered a solution nearly a year ago, during a similar hot spell: vichyssoise, a cold soup that is simple, delicious, and doesn't require tons of exotic ingredients. There are countless variations on it, but in the end, the basics come down to stock (or broth), potatoes, leeks, and milk or cream.
What I didn't know when I started researching the recipe was that vichyssoise has an interesting history. Despite the name, it originated not in France, but in New York, though its invention is credited to Louis Diat, a French chef at the Ritz-Carlton. Diat remembered adding cold milk to the hot potato-leek soup his family would make and finding it delicious, so he decided to make something similar for diners at the hotel. (He named his concoction "creme vichyssoise glance," after Vichy, a town noted for its spa and its excellent food.)
I read several vichyssoise recipes, some jaw-droppingly heavy on the cream, but finally decided to stick closely to the one I found in my mother's ancient, all-but-falling apart copy of The Joy of Cooking. I did add a few of my own touches, and the results have been fairly successful--to judge by the rate at which the soup disappears!
4-5 cups of chicken stock (for a purely vegetarian soup, you can substitute vegetable broth or water)
4-5 medium to large potatoes, diced (I use a mix of russets and Yukon Golds)
2-3 leeks, well-rinsed (white and pale green parts only)
1/4 of an onion
1 bay leaf
Pinch of thyme
Pinch of marjoram
1 Tbsp butter or margarine
1-2 cups of half-and-half (you can even use fat-free half-and-half, because what you're mainly after is the creamy taste!)
Salt, pepper to taste
Chop leeks, shallots, and onion fine and cook them in butter in a large stock pot until soft and limp. Do not brown.
Add stock, diced potatoes, bay leaf, thyme and marjoram. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to simmer for 15-20 minutes or until potatoes are tender.
Remove bay leaf. Let soup cool slightly, then puree in small batches in blender. For extra smoothness, pour soup through a fine strainer, using a rubber spatula to press it through the mesh.
Cover soup and let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate in sealed container until ready to serve. (It tends to taste better the second day). Before serving, stir 1-2 cups of half-and-half into soup until blended.
Season to taste, then sprinkle with chopped chives. (Or parsley...or even bacon, as the photograph below suggests!)