An Update: Leek and Potato Soup with Turnips

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My sister Grace lives in Atlanta and is the new mother of my two scrumptious little nieces. After she traded in her flight attendant’s uniform for maternity jeans a couple of years ago and got a schedule that allows her to be at home for more than a couple of days at a time, she’s become a kitchen enthusiast, even started canning last summer. She texted me this after I posted the split pea soup last week:

Glad you posted that soup recipe. I’m cooking again and it feels nice. I have two comments about the potato leek soup before I forget them.

1. We need proportions and 2. using an immersion blender turns it into paste.

How do you keep that from happening?”

A few months after I started this blog, I wrote a post about a neighbor in our community garden who gave me a bunch of leeks. I used them to make a simple potato leeks soup but didn’t really post a recipe, more of a general description of the process. Grace has been asking me to write down the actual recipe ever since I made it for her and her now-husband when they came out for a visit but I never got around to it. Now that she’s feeding it to her children, I figured it’s time to take my responsibility as an aunt seriously and finally get her the recipe.

The paste issue is another story. We have a family Christmas tradition that my mom started of making a pińata with newspaper and flour paste. Most starch can be turned into some kind of glue when it’s mixed with water and potatoes are no exception. Overworking potatoes, which is easy to do with any tool more powerful than your arm, turns them into paste. I’ve made mashed potatoes that you could mortar bricks with before I learned better.

 So, the goal is to blend the soup enough so that it’s smooth but not so much that it becomes gluey. Julia Child recommends either beating the soup with a fork or using a food mill, but I like a smoother puree than a fork will get me and I know a lot of kitchens aren’t equipped with food mills, so I use a hand-held stick blender as my first choice; it’s the easiest tool to control. A blender or food processor will work, but be judicious and just do a few quick pulses until it is smooth.

Another way to minimize the amount of blending is to cut the vegetables into small pieces to begin with; they will soften a lot while they cook and melt into a smooth puree with the cream almost instantly when they are blended.

Adding turnips to the soup sweeten the flavor a little, lighten the texture and make it less starchy, and also help minimize the glue factor.

Leek and Potato Soup with Turnips

 serves 4-6

4 medium-sized leeks (usually about 1 bunch of leeks, about 4 cups chopped)

3 medium russet potatoes (with the turnips, about 4 cups diced)

2 medium turnips

Water

Sea salt

¼ cup organic heavy cream (grass-fed, if possible)

Fill your kitchen sink or a large bowl with cold water. Trim the root ends and dark green ends off the leeks; I hold them by the white end and then use a knife to sort of shave the dark green outer leaves off into a point. Split the leeks lengthwise down the middle. Swish each half in the cold water thoroughly to and then let them float. Grit and dirt will sink to the bottom of the sink and then you can just lift the clean floating leeks from the top. Chop the leeks into ½ inch crescents.

 Peel and dice the potatoes and turnips. The size of the dice isn’t crucial, but the smaller the dice the more quickly they will cook to tenderness and the less blending is needed to make a smooth soup. I try to do about a 1/2 inch dice. If you prefer not to use turnips, use one more potato instead.

 Put all of the vegetables into a large heavy bottomed pot with about ½ teaspoon of sea salt. Add enough water to just barely come to the top of the vegetables. Remember, the vegetables will release a lot of liquid as they cook and we don’t want to water down the flavor with too much extra water, and you can always add a little extra if the pot begins to look a little dry. Cover the pot with a lid and bring to a simmer. Cook for 20-30 minutes until all the vegetables are very tender, stirring occasionally. I mash a piece of potato against the side of the pot to check tenderness. It should give no resistance to the spoon when it’s done.

 Using a handheld stick blender (my preference), a food processor, or a blender, puree the soup until it is completely smooth and velvety. Add ¼ cup of organic heavy cream, blend until combined and then check for salt. The cream will coat your tongue slightly so it’s best to wait until after adding the cream to add the final salt.

 Although I don’t have a slow cooker right now, I see no reason why you couldn’t simmer the vegetables on low in a slow cooker for several hours. Add maybe a little less water to the vegetables and stir once or twice to make sure the sugar in the leeks isn’t sticking, then blend and season as you would with a stove top version.

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The 3 Pillars of Potato Salad

Potato salad is one of those basic all-American dishes that everyone ought to have in their recipe repertoire. I’ve made a lot of different kinds of potato salad over the years, some versions better than others, but it goes so well with so many occasions that I’ve made an effort to refine a few techniques that bring out the best in it. Seasonings (and seasons)  change, but these techniques form the three pillars of all my  potato salad:

1.  Cook the potatoes whole. I’ve cooked a lot of potatoes in my day and will say that this is the most flavor and texture preserving technique for potato salad. Good potatoes actually have a lot of flavor, and the dense waxy potatoes I use for salad have a firm, creamy texture. Peeling, cutting them up and cooking them in boiling water dilutes the flavor and the texture that I want to be a significant component in the salad. Imagine that – potatoes as a feature, rather than a vehicle for dressing in potato salad!

2. Soak the potato pieces in apple cider vinegar. To counter the creaminess of the dressing, the dense starchiness of the potatoes and the juicy crunch of vegetables, I infuse the potatoes with a flavorful acidic vinegar steam bath. It lifts and brightens the salad from a typical blandness to a subtly tangy well-balanced bite.

3. I use dashi soup powder in the dressing. This is the point at which I will tiptoe into a very hotly debated health topic: glutamate and MSG. This very interesting article in the Guardian explains the history and controversy far better and in more depth than I possibly can, but my takeaway on the topic is that glutamate is a naturally occurring flavor enhancer, found in concentrated forms in aged cheeses, kelp, fish, mushrooms and mother’s milk (yep). My preference is to use ingredients that are in their most natural usable form rather than those that are industrial by-products or manufactured compounds imitating a natural product. Sugar and salt are examples of this, rawer versions having more mineral content and flavor that more refined versions. I first heard about these dashi soup mixes from this post on No Recipes as a more natural version of the flavor enhancing properties of  MSG. So, while I know this might be a controversial topic (what food isn’t these days anyway), it is something that I happily use and feed to the people who I love.

This is my favorite basic recipe:


Bacon Dill Potato Salad

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes

¼ cup apple cider vinegar

2 pieces of smoked bacon

Dressing:

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1/3 cup sour cream

1 small clove garlic

¼ red onion

2 ribs celery with tops

1 tablespoon dill weed

½ packet smoked bonito dashi mix

salt

fresh black pepper

Chop the bacon up and fry it. Once it is crisp and browned, remove the pieces from the fat they have rendered and set the bacon on paper to drain.

Wash the whole potatoes and cover them with an inch or two of salted water in a pot. Bring them to a low boil and cook until a sharp knife slides in and out of the center of the potato easily (given that the potatoes are cooked whole, it makes sense to try to get all of the same potatoes as close to the same size as you can). Time will vary, but start checking after 15-20 minutes.

Drain the water and let the potatoes cool just enough to be able to gingerly handle them. Cut the hot potatoes into bite sized pieces (I did eighths). Return them to their cooking pot and pour the apple cider vinegar over the potato pieces. Cover the pot with a lid and let the potatoes cool and soak up the vinegar.

While the potatoes are cooling, make the dressing. Mix the mayo and sour cream in a big bowl. Grate the small clove of garlic on a microplane grater, or use a garlic press or heavy knife to mash it into a paste. There should be about ½ teaspoon of garlic, just a hint in the dressing. Mince the onion and celery and stir the garlic, onion, and celery into the mayo and sour cream. If you have fresh dill weed, take the bigger stems out and roughly chop the fronds; dried can go into the mix whole. Add half of the packet of smoky bonito soup mix. Taste the dressing for salt, and add some if needed, keeping in mind that the potatoes have been cooked in salted water. Stir everything together well.

Once the potatoes have cooled to about room temperature, put them into a big enough bowl to stir the dressing into them with out them falling out all over the place. Pour the dressing over and grind about 10 grinds worth of black pepper over everything. At this point the bacon can be mixed into the potato salad too, or it can be sprinkled over the top of each serving. Mixed in, it loses a little of its crispness, but incorporates its flavor throughout the salad. Allow the potato salad to sit, refrigerated, for 30 minutes or so before serving (it’s even better the next day).

We had it last night with thin slices of peppery hangar steak and a cool tomato cucumber salad –

Potato Leek Soup

It is Allium season. All of the plants that spent the rainy winter in the ground are burgeoning in the warm weather, blooming and ripening. In the garden and farmers markets, broad hipped rosy red onions, mauve puffball chive blossoms, elegant jade leeks, sweet cloveless young garlic.

Weyland from a couple of plots over offered me some of his leeks. He had a beautiful row of slender leeks he planted last Fall and said he didn’t really know what to do with them. I told him how to make potato leek soup, how easy and good it was so he took them home to try the recipe. A few days later, I asked him how the soup had turned out and he said it was great, they had made it 3 times. He was digging more leeks (and not offering me any) so I guilted him into giving me a nice handful.

I think the reason that the Mesdames Child and Beck began Mastering the Art of French Cooking with a recipe for potato leek soup is that it is the sort of recipe that can be related while standing in a garden with a shovel in your hand. It is essentially simple without being plain, and delicious without being difficult.  It always pains me to see new cooks start out with a difficult dish and then become discouraged when it doesn’t turn out well. This soup on the other hand is a great confidence builder.

While the basic recipe requires only five ingredients- potatoes, leeks, water, salt, and cream- I sometimes augment or adapt it by adding some turnips and substituting chicken stock for water or milk for cream. The crucial step is to get all of the vegetables scrupulously clean. Leeks are notorious for hiding grit amongst its cracks and crevices. I get it all squeaky clean by first cutting off the darker green tops of the leeks, then quartering them and rinsing them in a bowl of water deep enough for the dirt to settle on the bottom while the leeks are being swished around above them.  Be thorough, because “earthy” isn’t the flavor we’re going for this time.

After the leeks are clean, chop them into chunks. Peel and cut the potatoes into large chunks. Dump them into a pot; add a generous amount of salt (although you will want to leave room to adjust it later) and just cover with water. Cover the pot and bring it to a low boil and cook for 20 minutes or so, until the leeks have softened and the potatoes are tender enough to crush with a fork. Using an immersion blender or canister blender, puree until quite smooth. Pour in cream, bit by bit, tasting as you go. I tend to use very little cream, just enough to enrich with out obscuring the flavor of the vegetables. Taste for salt and soup is ready. I drizzled a little olive oil and chives on top- but that embellishment is entirely optional.