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[Ed: Today marks the return of our indomitable and enthusiastic guest blogger, Della, who not only invokes the esteemed Julia in this fine post, but also adds two of my most favorite ingredients to this very classic dish.]
I made vichyssoise for the first time when I about 15 years old. A chilled soup sounded terribly exotic to me at that time and though I had never tasted it I assumed that anything so classically French must be a) delicious and b) difficult to make. I learned that I was only half right. The soup was absolutely divine but it was incredibly easy to cook. Then I learned a few years later that vichyssoise is not so “classically” French. According to Julia Child in her 1961 culinary bible “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” vichyssoise “is an American invention based on the leek and potato soup.” Apparently I was only 33 per cent correct. Nonetheless the result was wonderful and I make this and other chilled soups to this day.
Like so many traditional dishes, there are as many recipes as there are cooks making them. The first recipe I used was from the 1970 TeeVee Books publication “The New Complete Book of Cookery.” It was already an old book when I found it on my mother’s bookshelf though I’m certain I was the first to open it after the Christmas day it was received. The soup chapter was written by Ted Moloney, the author of several notable cookbooks including “Oh for a French Wife!” (1953) Moloney’s recipe calls for both leeks and onions with a leek/potato ratio of about 2 to 1. Moloney also calls for celery and uses butter to sweat the leeks and onions. In contrast Julia Child’s original 1961 recipe called for equal portions of leek and potato and no celery, onions or butter. Instead of sweating the vegetables they were simply simmered in the chicken stock. By the time her 1999 collaboration with Jacques Pepin, “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home” was published, Julia had added both butter and onion to her vichyssoise, deepening the flavour and improving the texture of the original. Of course, all of the recipes call for heavy cream in healthy measure.
Perhaps more important than their recipes, was the advice that Moloney, Child and Pepin offered home cooks. All three advocated improvisation. Potato and leek soup was simply a foundation for innumerable variations. From these icons of French cookery I learned that ultimately even the best recipes are merely guidelines and that flavour is far more important than authenticity. My vichyssoise is a blend of their recipes and inspired by their food philosophy. Julia and Jacques suggested adding carrots, parsnips, cucumbers, cabbage, squash and a plethora of other possibilities either alone or in combination. You’ll see fennel and wine in my ingredient list. Neither are traditional ingredients but I think fennel adds an aromatic depth to the soup. The fennel is sort of an Italian take on this French inspired American classic.
At its best vichyssoise is simple, luxurious and elegant. Whether you stick to the basics or jazz up your vichyssoise with some exotic addition I hope you enjoy the result. Bon appétit.
¼ cup unsalted butter
2 medium leeks (about 3/4 lb untrimmed), sliced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 fennel bulb, sliced (optional)
2 large potatoes (about 1 ½ lbs), sliced
½ cup white wine (optional)
4 cups chicken stock
½ to 1 cup whipping cream (feel free to use half and half if you want to lighten things up)
Salt and white pepper to taste
Chives or fennel frond, finely chopped for garnish
Crème fraiche or sour cream, for garnish
Sauté leeks, celery and fennel with butter on medium low heat. Be careful not to caramelize leeks or burn butter. When leeks and celery are soft, deglaze pot with white wine. Let wine reduce until pot is almost dry. Add potatoes and chicken stock. Cover and simmer until vegetables are very soft – about 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Puree with a stick blender, food processor or food mill. Let puree cool and then chill thoroughly.
Just before serving stir in cream.
Serve in chilled bowls garnished with a dollop of crème fraiche and chopped chives or fennel fronds if you have used fennel in the soup.
Yields 6 to 8 appetizer portions.
A couple of quick notes:
1. Use russet or other high starch potato for the best texture
2. For those of you who have not cooked leeks before, leeks collect sand like your worst nightmare swimsuit. Rinsing the sliced leeks in a big bowl of cool water is your best bet to dislodge the grainy intruder. [Ed. I've also tried taking a mushroom scrubber to them and it works like a hot diggety, but it is labour intensive.]