Food Scoop: Potato Leek Soup

This is what late morning on a Saturday looks like: I’m standing in my kitchen with the radio tuned to “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me,” which NPR bills as an, “oddly informative quiz show.” My hair is a tangled mess, and there’s a mostly-empty cup of hot chocolate getting chilly at my elbow. I’m peeling potatoes, half-listening to Peter Segal’s voice on the radio and thinking ahead to the potato leek soup I’m having for lunch.

This is a quintessential Julia Child recipe. It’s the first recipe, in fact, in her book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1.” She calls it “potage parmentier,” and says it “smells good, tastes good and is simplicity itself to make.” All of which I find to be true.

It’s the recipe that introduced me to the beauty of leeks. They’re these long white and green vegetables in the leafy greens section of the grocery store, a bit like oversized green onions.
Cleaning them is a challenge, as an incredible amount of dirt can be trapped in the neatly-pleating leaves. The reward, however, is a delicate flavor, almost onion-like, but with flavor that reminds me a little of the smallest, newest leaves of lettuce or celery.

I’ve made potato-leek soup with onions before, and it’s a poor substitute. Onions are too overpowering, while leeks are the perfect complement to the potatoes. While they simmer away on the stove, the scent of leeks wafting out of the kitchen is a perfume that beckons. It promises a fresh, tasty soup. At this time of year, I’ve eaten so many potatoes that they need something like leeks to make them enticing.

Making potato leek soup with only leeks and potatoes is not bad. But because we have a new quart of cream in the refrigerator, and because there was a bag of homegrown broccoli in the freezer begging to be eaten, I’m making some additions. Potato leek soup is a thick, chunky soup. Like many potato-centric dishes, it goes wonderfully with milk products. I like it with a pat of butter melting over top, or a drizzle of heavy cream stirred in. The broccoli is another thing I like. It doesn’t get in the way of the flavor, but it adds a slight change in texture that is lovely.

Waiting for the potatoes and leeks to simmer into softness, I find myself thinking about this summer. I’m about to graduate, and I’m planning on moving to a new city and starting a new venture in my life. I can’t depend on many things staying the same – but I hear the farmer’s markets are bursting with fresh produce. I’ll be able to find leeks with dirt caked under their green leaves, and the first crops of new potatoes in the summer. I might not make potage parmentier – I think of it more as a winter soup –but I could, I definitely could.

In the meantime, I’m going to sit down and enjoy a bowl of potato leek soup right now. Everything from the scent of the leeks to the green bits of broccoli to the thick potato-y body of the soup is calling to me, and my hungry tummy is calling back.

Potato Leek Soup

6 cups peeled and quartered potatoes

3-4 cups chopped leeks, about two stalks

3 cups broccoli, chopped

2 quarts water

1 tablespoon salt

cream and/or butter to preference

Peel and quarter the potatoes. Because they are starchy foods, I like to soak them for a few minutes and drain them before putting them in a large pot.

Like I said, leeks tend to have a lot of dirt trapped in their stalks. I deal with this by trimming off as much of the dark green leaves as possible and rinsing them. Once I’ve done that, I split them lengthwise. This lets me rinse them more thoroughly without peeling the layers back one by one.
Instead, I can pull the layers apart enough to wash them. After that, I chop them in about half-inch wide chunks, and rinse them one last time.

The last time I bought leeks, I could only find them in the organic section. Those absolutely required three rinses because of the amount of dirt. Another thing to know about leeks is that the dark green leaves are too tough to use. You want the lower part of the stalk, and the very inner leaves, basically everything that is white or yellow.

As far as the broccoli goes, you have two options. Since mine was already cooked, I chopped it finely and added it in the last minutes. If you have uncooked broccoli, wash and chop it up, then add it to the pot with potatoes and leeks before cooking.

Add the leeks to the large pot, cover with water, and bring them to a simmer. Cook for 40-50 minutes, or until fork slides easily through the potatoes.

Once everything is soft, pull it off the stove. I tend to drain off some of the water, which makes a handy vegetable stock. However, this thickens the soup to the point that my old roommate used to tell me I was just making mashed potatoes, so use your judgment for how thick or thin you prefer your soup. For a very chunky soup, just use a potato masher until all of the potatoes have been broken up and the water is no longer in evidence. For a soup with a finer grain, you can run it through a food processor. I find that a hand-held food mill is the easiest solution for that smoother result.

Serve with cream or butter handy. I like it with a little cracked black pepper as well. Enjoy!

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