Friday, November 18, 2011

truffled vichyssoise + butter lettuce salad with lemon-mustard vinaigrette

The first time I ever had vichyssoise, I was sixteen years old and staying in a rented house in the North Carolina mountains for a church weekend with my parents and siblings and several other families. As a first course one evening, our congregation's unanimously elected cook, Marcia, served us a cold potato and leek soup. We ate it out of mugs, sitting at a picnic table in the yard, all of us still flagging from the day's early July heat, which was formidable even after sunset and even at that altitude. Vichyssoise was the perfect food for that evening and its quintessentially blue Appalachian twilight, and Marcia's version was, not surprisingly, the perfect one to serve as my introduction to the dish.

Marcia was one of my first Sunday school teachers when my family started attending church again in 1982. Powell Presbyterian had a small congregation, and some Sunday mornings I was the only kid in the class. Stories have always appealed to me; I often say I'm a sucker for a narrative, which is probably why I became an English teacher. Marcia's explanations of biblical tales gave me a familiarity with the narratives of both testaments that would eventually help me win a partial Bible Scholarship to Montreat College ten years later. (I wrote my scholarship application essay on Noah and the significance of the rainbow's promise). Though Marcia always wore ladylike skirt suits to church, she was no shrinking violet. She had studied chemical engineering in college and then worked for eighteen years as a safety analyst in the nuclear industry, in addition to having raised three sons. Even now, whenever I think of the Biblical St. Paul, I always picture her bearded, intelligent, kind-faced husband of the same name. Marcia was kind, too, yet she was also outspoken and had a certain earthiness: she made my high school church friends and me blush furiously when she remarked baldly, during one youth group outing to her house to harvest peaches from her orchards, "Hmph! Sex is the smallest part of what marriage really is." (I suspect we had probably been giggling and whispering about something along those lines.)

I also suspect that that earthiness is what made her so good with food: Marcia is one of the most amazing home cooks I've ever met. She was always a genius with a pantry (in the style of Robert Irvine or the chefs on Chopped) and could figure out not only how to make something taste so divine that you felt guilty that you weren't being more piously ascetic on this church-sponsored outingbut also, and perhaps more impressively, she could produce these dishes in batches so massive that they could feed an army. People were constantly requesting her lasagna for family night suppers and weekend retreats, and despite the industrial-sized pans she made, there were never many leftovers that I can remember.

On the medical mission trip nine of us took to Haiti in the summer of 1997, Marcia took over the kitchen after our host, Peggy, unexpectedly broke her wrist and had to be transported back to the States from the hospital where we were staying in Mombin-Crochu. We spent that ten days dodging enormous tarantulas, taking one- and two-gallon showers every other day, rationing drinking water, and seeing dozens of terminally malnourished and sick patients, but let's be frank: these still seem to me to be very First-World kinds of challenges. Given the sufferings of the various people we met and saw in the hospital, I know we all felt lucky and humbled by how remarkably well we ate on the basics that were, thankfully, stocked in the hospital's pantry. For several breakfasts that week, Marcia made pans of doughy, homemade sweet rolls studded with fresh mango and coconut from the trees just outside the hospital. One evening, she also made (no joke) the best pot of soup beans I've ever had. It was so simpleyet I would have happily turned up the pot and drunk the cooking liquid from the beans by itself. And it wasn't merely our long days and the attendant hunger and fatigue. Her food was wonderful. From Marcia's soup pot of beans, I learned the magical alchemy of bay leaves and garlic, perhaps two of the cheapest things you can buy at the grocery store. I use that combination all the time now, whenever I have to simmer meat or beans.  Marcia's food was always perfectly seasoned. Its simplicity and balance, paradoxically, made it intimidatingly sophisticated. Her humility was equally beautiful. The lady has a gift. From what I can tell on her Facebook page, these days she's using her gift full-time as a volunteer, now that she's retired.

For some reason, a year or so ago, I suddenly got a bee in my bonnet to make vichyssoise, remembering the coffee cup full of elegant cold potato soup from that evening in Montreat, North Carolina, where, a couple of years later, I eventually went off to college. I went looking for something to use as a template, and what I found was a classic recipe that I changed just a bitmost importantly, by substituting Greek yogurt for heavy or sour cream. (While nonfat Greek yogurt is very good for you, I won't insult you by claiming this recipe itself is healthy; I mean, come on: half a stick of butter.) The Greek yogurt transforms this soup. Take a taste of it before and then after you add the yogurt, and you'll see what I'm talking about. I also added a drizzle of truffle oil and a sprinkling of snipped chives to make it feel even more modern and decadent, but you can certainly eat this by itself with no garnish (I did, until this batch), and I promise you'll be happy as a clam.

And one final thing: if you do decide to leave out the truffle oil, this recipe is so cheap to make that you might even think about donating something here or here or here or to one of your own local charities, so that someone else can have a good meal next week. Even in the U.S., where we should have solved this problem by now, there are hundreds of thousands of people who will most assuredly not be bellying up to a table sagging with food on Thursday.

I'm just saying. It's really good to have something to eat, and we're really lucky if we do. Let's all take a moment to be grateful for food and its power to both nourish and inspire, and maybe our gratitude will translate into helping someone else enjoy those benefits, too.


truffled vichyssoise
(adapted from a 1962 recipe from Gourmet magazine)

4 medium potatoes, peeled and finely diced
3 medium leeks, washed, peeled, cut into 3/4-inch coins, then cut in half again (be sure and get some of the green part, but stop where the stalk gets too tough and woody)
half a medium white onion, finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 tbsp. unsalted butter (half a stick)
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
salt and black pepper to taste
3 cups unsalted chicken or vegetable stock
5 to 6-ounce container nonfat Greek-style yogurt (room temperature)
truffle oil
fresh chives

Drop the chopped leeks into a bowl full of water and work them around a bit with your hands to loosen any remaining dirt or sand on them. Leave them there to soak while you deal with the potatoes.

Put the diced potatoes in a soup pot and add enough water to cover them plus a good pinch of salt. Bring them to a boil, and then simmer uncovered until they’re just donethey should have a creamy texture inside. Drain them and then remove them to a plate or bowl.

In the same unwashed pot, melt the butter over low heat, and then add drained leeks and chopped onion, along with salt and pepper to taste. Sauté until tender (5 to 8 minutes or so), making sure not to brown them. Add the garlic for the last minute or two of cooking.

Add potatoes back into the pot, along with chicken broth, pepper, and nutmeg, and simmer gently for a few minutes until the leeks are really tender. With an immersion blender (or you can do this in a real blender), puree the entire pot of soup until it is completely smooth. Taste it. If it needs more salt, add it nowkeeping in mind that it will probably taste a little boring at this point, until you add the Greek yogurt later.

Remove the soup from the heat and let it cool for a while. When it’s no longer hot, stir in the yogurt. Chill in the refrigerator and serve cold, or keep it warm. Serve with some snipped chives and a few drops of truffle oil on top. (Seriously: be very sparing with the truffle oil. This is a simple soup, and it would be a shame to drown its appeal with a heavy hand.)

Note: I made this tonight and kept it warm, and it was delightful, so just go with your feeling: if it's hot out, you might chill it, but it would be a nice, rich cold-weather soup served warm, as well.

And now for the salad. Tossed with the butter lettuce is a super simple, tart-but-creamy vinaigrette that is like the little black dress of salad dressings: it goes with anything. I used to put minced garlic in dressings, but in my opinion it's just too strong in something delicate like this. Letting the dressing sit for a while with the smashed garlic in it and then removing the garlic clove entirely before serving gives the whole thing just a hint of garlic flavor without, say, compromising your chances of getting a goodnight kiss. The pecans give the whole shebang sweetness and crunch.

butter lettuce salad with lemon-mustard vinaigrette

juice of one lemon
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. mayonnaise
lots of pepper
1 to 2 tsp. finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
olive oil
1 large garlic clove, peeled & well smashed
several cups of butter lettuce, torn
toasted pecans

Whisk together first five ingredients (up to the olive oil). When ingredients are well combined, whisking constantly, add oil in a thin stream so that the dressing emulsifies. Keep tasting it until it gets to the tartness you like. You can also add a pinch of sugar, if you want to tone it down and make it a little sweeter.

Stir in the piece of smashed garlic, smash it a little more with the whisk, and let the dressing sit at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes so that the garlic infuses it.

When ready to serve, discard garlic and toss dressing sparingly with butter lettuce. Serve with toasted pecans sprinkled on top.
You can tell this is D's place at the table because of the sheer volume of pepper.
The man loves spicy. <3

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