Le Tour & Turnip Soup

July 3, 2011

When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.
~H.G. Wells

Please excuse my exuberance, but it’s that time of year again.

Yesterday was the grand départ of this year’s ever epic Tour de France —3,430.5 grueling kilometres (2,131.6 mi) over three weeks. Customarily, the Tour has begun with a prologue stage where riders raced solely against the clock. In a break with tradition, the organizers opened with a road stage on the Atlantic seaboard which proved fairly flat but closed with an undulating finish and a brief, yet deceptively arduous, climb. A route which favored riders who can unleash rapid, potent bursts of uphill acceleration.

The supple grace, suffering, precision and outright speed of the team trial was held today…a precise race against the clock, and a reminder to even the most casual observers that the Tour de France is a team sport. Sheer beauty on wheels.

The Tour’s field now heads into Bretagne (Brittany), an almost mystical region defined by the sea and perched on the northwest tip of France. Bretagne stands apart from the rest of France, its peninsular thumb jutting into the blue, separating the English Channel from the Bay of Biscay. The modern administrative region roughly silhouettes the historic province, and is now comprised of the départements of Côtes-d’Armor, Finistère, Ille-et-Vilaine and Morbihan.

Although inhabited by peoples as early as 8,000 BCE and conquered by Romans who occupied the region for several centuries, Brittany’s true birth was forged during the Dark Ages. Then, waves of Irish, Welsh and English immigrants (Bretons) “invaded” and profoundly altered the character of the peninsula, which became Bretagne. They spread their own brand of religion as well as a fiercely insular, sometimes resentful, spirit. A wary sensitivity about their environs. This ruggedly independent attitude is reinforced by landscape—a land which boasts a staggering 1,700 miles of contorted coastline characterized by windswept cliffs, capes, islands, and rocky ports, many with ominous sounding names. While the seascapes tend to be dramatic, the landscapes inland are more mellow. The interior lies on the Argoat plateau (wood country) where small farm plots are surrounded by hedgerows, a patchwork known as the bocage.

The sea’s and land’s bounties are jealously guarded yet so copiously displayed at local markets. A cornucopia of varied flat fish, oysters, sea urchins, scallops, mussels, whelks, langoustines, crevettes, lobsters and crabs rest on ice. Other stalls brim with produce grown on the Argoat farmlands: cauliflower, onions, peas, turnips, cabbages, white beans, and the omnipresent Breton artichokes. Also displayed are lamb raised on nearby salt marshes, along with prized chickens, geese, regional sausages and various offal. Farmers sell fresh milk and the region’s esteemed butter, apples from the Argoat orchards, strawberries from Plougastel, and famed new potatoes from the inland sandy flats.

POTAGE AUX NAVETS BLANCS (TURNIP SOUP)

3 T unsalted butter
2 leeks, thinly sliced (white and pale green parts only)
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced

5 medium white turnips (about 2 1/2 lbs), peeled, cut into 1/2″ slices
1 medium russet potato, peeled, cut into 1/2″ slices
5 C+ chicken broth

1 3/4 C whole milk
1/4 C whipping cream
Grating of nutmeg

1 turnip, peeled, cut into small matchstick julienne

Fresh fennel fronds, chopped

Melt butter in heavy large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add leeks and onion and sauté until onion is translucent, about 10-12 minutes. Add turnips and potato and sauté 2 minutes. Add broth and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer until vegetables are very tender, about 30 minutes.

Purée soup in processor or blender in batches until very smooth, then return to Dutch oven. Add milk and cream and bring to a simmer. Season to taste with nutmeg, salt and pepper.

Cook julienned turnips in pot of boiling salted water until just tender yet crisp, about 2 minutes. Drain.

Bring soup to simmer, thinning with more broth if necessary. Ladle into bowls and garnish with turnip strips and chopped fresh fennel.

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!