Though I didn’t really realize it at the time, one of the great blessings of going on the annual Birmingham-Southern College Concert Choir tour – and I did three: to Texas, to Philly/D.C./Williamsburg, and to Chicago/Gary/St. Louis – was the exposure I gained to new and different foods as we traveled across the USA. It sounds almost silly now, but I don’t know if I’d have ever tried a raw oyster – now one of my favorite things on the planet – if not for Jackie Dicie’s insistence as we sat alongside the just opened and shiny-new San Antonio Riverwalk (on a saltine, with lots of cocktail sauce and a big beer to chase it). And one of the most transporting flavor/aroma combinations I’ve ever enjoyed was a pumpkin patty served as a side dish on a plate at Christiana Campbell’s tavern in Williamsburg (on the same day that we sang the Charles Ives 90th Psalm at Bruton Parish Church standing, as one does, above the graves of the many Founding Fathers who are buried underneath the floor).
And, as fate would have it, I spent my 21st birthday in Chicago where I had the wonderful treat of dining with three other choir buddies in the stunning restaurant on the top floors of the just completed John Hancock Tower called “The 95th” (before heading over to the then super-hot Playboy Club (this was 1971, after all), which wouldn’t let us in because my 21st birthday didn’t start till midnight, and we had to be back at our Holiday Inn by then – darn).
Truth is, I don’t remember my entrée or dessert from that occasion, but I do remember the appetizer, an ice-cold bowl of Vichyssoise served in a “cocktail bowl” surrounded by cracked ice to keep it cold. It was a fancy presentation, but the soup inside could hardly have looked less impressive, more or less like a bowl of milk, but what a taste and texture!
Fast forward thirty years, and I decided to give it a try, myself, and see how close I could come to that well-remembered dish. We had invited our neighbors at the Island, Guy Musquere and Daniel Meyer, to dinner, along with 8 of their Parisian guests. Guy and Daniel rented the beach house across the walk from us for July and August every year for decades (until a couple of years ago, when Daniel died in his early 80s and Guy – at 90 – felt he could no longer handle the stairs) and I wanted to honor them with something undeniably French. Now, this was a particularly risky challenge since Guy and Daniel were true Parisian aristocracy (until it was privatized in the 70s, or so, Guy had run the French government’s aluminum industry created to exploit Bauxite discoveries in French Equatorial Africa, and Daniel was, for over three decades, Chief Curator of Versailles – yes, that Versailles – and author of the two definitive books about its architecture and furnishings, the latter being a truly extraordinary two-volume set, much of which was written right there in The Pines [http://www.amazon.com/Furniture-Collection-Versailles-Vol-Set/dp/2878440579]).
But, what the heck, you only live once, right? What was the worst that could happen?
Well, I’m delighted to report that the soup was so well received that almost everyone asked for seconds, and in the years since, you might say it’s become a famous part of my kitchen repertoire, and I try to do it at least once a summer. I usually wait until a really hot weekend when the creamy coldness of the soup can be especially welcome, but it occurs to me that it would also be a great start to a Thanksgiving feast, so I’m posting it here for you and hope you find it as easy and successful as I have!
Now a few words about this recipe. Of course the main goal here is wonderful taste and texture, but another overarching goal is to keep it white. Even the pepper is white, so keep that in mind as you go, and if, as you are sautéing the leeks at the beginning, one or two bits cling to the side of the pot to the point of browning, remove them, so that when the sautéing has been done, there are no browned bits left to spoil the pure whiteness of your soup.
Also, if there is a secret ingredient here – that is, one that diverges from usual recipes but makes a huge difference in the end product – it is the little bit of bacon grease added at the start, which gives the vichyssoise such a silkiness that it is often the most commented-upon element of this dish. Also, in pursuit of that smoothness, try to avoid grainy potatoes, though a grainy white potato is preferable to a smoother yellow one, which would dull the color.
Finally, this soup should be served as icy cold as possible, so be sure to allow at least several hours for it to sit in the refrigerator before serving, or even make it the day before (it will keep for days). I always make way too much (about double this recipe) and end up putting a ½ gallon pitcher, or two, of it in the fridge, but somehow it all seems to disappear fairly quickly.
4 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons bacon grease
4-6 large, healthy leeks; if small, maybe even more. Should have about two cups when done preparing for the pot (use ONLY the white and very lightest green parts that won’t add color the end product. Keep green parts to add to another soup or salad if you despair of discarding them.)
2 chicken bouillon cubes
4-6 medium white-meat potatoes
2 quarts colorless chicken broth (Caution: some packaged chicken broths add caramel to give it a brownish color and that will not do when whiteness is the goal. Check label before purchasing, or better yet, make your own broth :-).)
2 quarts heavy cream
Prepare ingredients: Clean leeks thoroughly (to keep them white, growers pile dirt up around the bottoms of the emerging plants, so sand and grime can be really deep in the stalk) and slice only the white or very light green parts into rings about 1/8” thick; if you don’t keep bacon grease around, fry a few pieces of bacon to provide grease, then strain to get out any dark bits; peel potatoes and cut into pieces as if you were going to boil and mash them and keep under water until you need them to avoid oxidizing (will also help rinse away some of the starch).
Place olive oil and bacon grease in stock pot or other large (10 quart) pot over medium heat (note that I always use a gas stove and know what “medium” means to me in that context, but electric eyes can burn things in a heartbeat, so adjust heat to your own levels of comfort on your own stove).
Add leeks and stir constantly until they are completely limp and transparent and are just this side of leek mush, but without a speck of brown.
Add the two quarts of chicken broth and two chicken bouillon cubes and bring to a boil.
Add the prepared potatoes and cook until beyond tender and the sharp edges of potato pieces become rounded.
Remove from heat, and using either 1) a hand-held immersion blender right in the cooking pot (my choice and much easier/neater) or 2) a regular blender or food-processor (in which case you might have to do it in two or three batches and then return to pot), thoroughly blend until there no lumps and your soup base is as smooth as possible.
Return to stove and over low heat stir in the two quarts of heavy cream and salt and white pepper to taste and heat, stirring occasionally, until cream is thoroughly integrated, but do not boil.
Remove from heat and cool, then place in refrigerator for at least four hours, eight is better.
Prior to serving, chop chives and place a teaspoonful on top of each bowl.
Bask in praise.