Leek Soup Can Be Elegant or Rustic

It was about darn time I dug the leeks, and Saturday was the day. I had planted close to sixty of them, and forty remained to put away in the cellar. Just about my favorite thing to do with leeks is to make soup, though they are wonderful sautéed with kale; or sliced and baked with a cheese sauce; or made into a quiche; or used like any other member of the onion family when you prefer a mild onion flavor over the tear-inducing yellow or white onions.

My island neighbor Linda Gillies, who is a wonderful cook and often gets vegetables from me, came for eight of them destined for “Senlis Soup,” a favorite family leek soup which reminds them of Linda’s grandmother who lived in Senlis, France, north of Paris. That made me think about of all those other leek and potato soups we hear about. Linda’s soup calls for carrots, potatoes and leeks and is run through a food mill, so an elegant creamy soup results. Vichyssoise is potatoes and leeks, and can be served elegantly, cold or room temperature.

I remember a leek and brie soup made by a wonderful Jamaican cook with whom I worked at a bed and breakfast here on island. Kerine finely sliced four or five leeks, sautéed them in butter until they were very tender, then added about a quart of chicken stock and a small wedge of brie, rind and all. The brie melted into the soup, and Kerine fished out the tough and curled up rind before serving. Oh, groan: was that ever rich and good and very elegant! I’ve never tried it, but I suspect that blue cheese would also work in a soup like that.

There is a traditional and more rustic Irish potato soup merely made with onions or leeks. And a simple Cornish soup made with bread, leeks, and broth.

Generally though, for all that peasants in France and the British Isles have grown and cooked with them for a few hundred years, leeks can be pricey today, but they are reasonably easy to grow. I started mine from seeds, and when they looked like a five-inch blade of grass, I trimmed a couple of inches off the tops, which caused them to thicken up. I planted them out in a groove that I formed in the garden bed with a hoe, and hilled them up a couple of times. Aside from weeding, I mostly ignored them. You can do this, too.
Given that I prefer soup to have a bit more texture, and because I am essentially pretty lazy when it comes to pureeing or food-milling things, I tend to the rustic side of potato leek soup. Save the potato cooking water to use as a broth with chicken bouillon added, if you wish. If I had leftover mashed potatoes, I would seriously consider cooking up leeks, sautéing them in butter or olive oil until they were tender, and adding chicken or vegetable broth ,then dumping in the leftover potatoes. You can put it in a blender or not. If you want a cream soup, just add cream. Salt and pepper. How hard is that? I don’t think we have to get very scientific about this concoction.

Special note: Last week’s piece, about mincemeat and sticky mixtures scorching when cooked on top of the stove, reminded Pam Ashby in Lubec and Dot Simmons in Bangor that their moms used to put the mixture in the oven to cook! That way it doesn’t catch on the bottom of the pot.

P.S: This weekend I am out and about with my cookbook, Maine Home Cooking, which includes many recipes sent me by you loyal Taste Buds readers.

On Saturday, November 10, I’ll be in Machias, at the Porter Library at 2:00 p.m. for a free talk and signing and would love to see you if you are in the area.

On Sunday, November 11, I am participating in the Harvest Festival at the Bangor Civic Center at noon with a demonstration of things to do with winter squash! Admission is $5, children under ten are free.

Potato Leek Soup
3 medium sized potatoes
3-4 leeks
2 ribs of celery (optional)
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 quart chicken broth
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup cream (optional)

Peel the potatoes and cut into small cubes and put in enough water to cover them and cook until they are tender. Slice thinly the white part of the leeks and as much of the green as is tender. If you use celery, chop it finely. Melt the butter with olive oil in a heavy pot and add the leeks and celery, cooking them until they are tender. Add the cooked potatoes to the leeks, mashing a few of them a little to help thicken the soup. Add the chicken broth and simmer all together for a half hour or so, add salt and pepper, taste and adjust the seasonings. Before serving, add the optional cream and let it just heat through.

Makes four to five servings.

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About Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working Waterfront. Besides freelance food writing, she is a pioneering food historian beginning her work in 1971 at Mystic Seaport Museum, where she developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house. After moving to Maine in 1988, Sandy wrote, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century published in 1995. She is the author of The Food of Colonial and Federal America published in fall of 2005, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin. She often speaks to historical organizations and food professional groups around the country, organizes historical dinners, and conducts classes and workshops in food history and in sustainable gardening and cooking. Sandy lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot where she gardens, preserves, cooks and teaches sustainable lifeways.