Potato-Leek Soup

October 15, 2009

I appreciate the potato only as a protection against famine, except for that, I know of nothing more eminently tasteless.
~Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste (1825)

Potatoes abound in food lore. These subterranean tubers were even the partial cause of a significant global migration, a diaspora of sorts. In the early 19th century, potatoes were grown extensively in northern Europe and certainly in Ireland. It was almost solely relied upon as the Emerald Isle staple owing to low production costs coupled with the country’s then undeveloped economy. In hindsight, this inflexible reliance on a somewhat singular foodstuff turned out to be a calamitous gamble.

Beginning in 1845, a pervasive blight occurred thanks to a wind born fungus, Phytophthora infestans, spawning the infamous Irish Potato Famine which destroyed most of the crop. The consequences were dire, causing widespread devastation, hunger, death and social upheaval—rancid, rotting fields in all directions. In Celtic, this disaster is referred to as an Gorta Mór meaning “the great hunger.” Some estimates have placed the numbers at 750,000 Irish dead, while hundreds of thousands emigrated to other countries, many to the United States, in search of new beginnings.

And before I forget, M. Brillat-Savarin, pillorying potatoes? Since your passing chef B-S, French cuisine has been brimming with captivating potato dishes in almost endless (and eminently tasteful) preparations: anna, dauphinois, galette, gaufrette, purée, etc. As for your assertion that potatoes serve merely as a protection against famine, well…supra? An esteemed cook you were, but you missed this call.

We have had a recent spate of November-like damp and chill which provokes yearnings for comfort soups. My youngest is a potato soup addict, which makes the stars truly aligned for bowls of this rich, creamy starch.

Make sure to clean and rinse the leeks thoroughly to rid them of sand and dirt, then slice only the white and light green parts of the stalks. Should you choose to go rustic, do not peel the potatoes, cut them in larger chunks, and do not purée the soup entirely—perhaps just loosely mash them—all of which underscores earth and texture. Should the soup be a tad thick in the later stages, simply add small amounts of stock to your liking.

POTATO-LEEK SOUP

3 thick strips bacon, sliced into 1/2″ pieces for lardons (optional)

3 T unsalted butter
3 leeks, sliced in half lengthwise, then thinly sliced crosswise
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

2 bay leaves
20 black peppercorns
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 C dry white wine
7 russet potatoes, peeled and diced
3 1/2 C chicken broth

1 C heavy cream
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper (white or black) to taste

2 T chopped chives

Create a bouquet garni by wrapping bay leaves, peppercorns and thyme together in a piece of cheesecloth tied with twine.

Cook bacon pieces until crisp, then drain on paper towels.

Melt butter in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat then add onions, leeks and garlic. Cook, stirring, until they are limp and just slightly brown. Discard garlic cloves before they brown.

Add the wine and bouquet garni to the pot and bring to a gentle boil. Add potatoes to pot then pour in enough chicken broth to just barely cover the potatoes. Bring to a simmer and cook until potatoes are very tender, about 30 minutes or so.

Remove the bouquet garni and, working in batches, purée the soup in a food processor or blender. Alternately, use an immersion blender, and purée the soup directly in the pot.

Add cream and lardons, stirring, and salt and black pepper to taste. Cook 5 minutes more over low heat, stirring frequently. Pour into bowls, garnish with chives and serve.

Bon appetit, Carter!

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