War and Leeks

I knew it was bound to happen. Well, truthfully, I had hoped it wouldn’t… But, alas, I am human and, hence, imperfect. Today was a kitchen disaster. Some may say I’m being overly dramatic. And there was nobody else around to witness this tragedy aside from my trusty sous-chef Fargo, the yellow lab. But I just finished cooking what I hoped would be a luxurious, rustic potato leek soup. What is now sitting in a pot on my stove more closely resembles wallpaper paste.  Or what I would imagine it looks like. I am, as you can imagine, less than pleased.

The day started out fine. Off to the farmer’s market in search of leeks – those rods of oniony goodness resembling overgrown scallions. I love their striations of color – it seems like every shade of green is featured throughout the stalk. And they have so very many applications. Braised leeks. Creamy oven-roasted leeks. Crispy fried leeks perched on top seared scallops or nestled over a bubbling gratin. My mouth was watering.

Alas, I wanted to be a bit more virtuous. A little healthier. So I searched for a nutritious potato leek soup recipe. So many were laden with butter and heavy cream. And too, I was concerned about presenting a starch-fest for a meal. So I figured I would “improvise.” I almost always tweak recipes and, for the most part, they work out quite well. Not so this time.

I took a perfectly good recipe for this soup and it went to hell in a … stock pot.  I tried substituting buttermilk for heavy cream. And, feeling bold, I even tossed in some pureed cannellini beans, thinking I’d bump up the protein quotient. Both poor choices.

The lesson I learned is this – not all recipes are meant to be “healthified.” There are likely a number of perfectly good potato leek soup recipes that are more nutritious than the traditional vichyssoise (AKA potato leek soup served hot) recipe I found in the Joy of Cooking. But in retrospect I ask myself this. Can’t we all stand a bit of indulgence, a touch of luxury from time to time? What’s wrong a creamy, leek-infused bowl of steaming soup to dive into from time to time?

After freezing the first batch (I just couldn’t let it go to waste and it was, in truth, not THAT bad – it’s just not something I can, in good conscience, recommend), I searched for another recipe that would satisfy my desire for healthy leek soup. Then I recalled a leek and mushroom soup mom used to make with leeks pulled directly from her garden. I dug through old cookbooks and files and finally unearthed my ragged, spiral-bound recipe “book” – the one I brought to Washington, D.C. when I headed east after college. The one with my favorite, “tried and true” recipes. The one featuring mom’s beloved recipe for leek and mushroom soup. 

Off to the store (the farmer’s market had long since closed) for more leeks and a bag full of mushrooms. Pot cleaned. Ditto the leeks. Vegetables chopped. Soup simmered. One hour later – delicious, satisfying, rich-but-not-too-rich leek soup. Some day soon I will indulge without guilt in a bowl of the Joy of Cooking version.  But for now – contentment.

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Leek & Mushroom Soup

 Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
  • 2 large leeks
  • 3 cups chopped mushrooms (Cremini or button – or any kind you like)
  • 1/2 yellow onion
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 32 ounces vegetable or chicken stock
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 1/3 cup sherry
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Instructions

Thoroughly wash the leeks. Dirt and grit loves to hide amongst the layers of the leeks and needs to be gently coaxed out with water. Try cutting the leeks lengthwise down to ½ inch above the root and running water down toward the dark green part. Or chop all your leeks and soak in a large bowl of water, allowing the dirt and grit to drift to the bottom of the bowl. Then place in strainer and rinse again.

Thinly slice leeks into half-moons. Finely chop onions and celery. Thinly slice mushrooms.

In a stock pot, heat oil or butter over medium. Add all vegetables and sauté until tender – about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with flour and stir well to coat all the vegetables. Season with salt and pepper (about ½ teaspoon of each). Stir well. Add stock and sprigs of thyme. Simmer on low for 15 minutes. Add sherry and simmer another 5 minutes. Remove sprigs of thyme.

Season to taste. You can add some wild rice to make this more substantial.

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Final lesson of the day. Don’t let one kitchen nightmare deter you from exploring other avenues. There is always a solution. More importantly, if you are patient (a skill I am trying to develop), there is almost always a tasty reward.

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