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April 20, 2006

Heading: Soup Weather, Talk of the Table by BOB DORAN

It wasn't the most promising day for a visit to the Farmers' Market. The rain was at serious drizzle stage when I got up Saturday morning, and it kept coming down as the day wore on. Still, I knew there'd be farmers at the market. Most of them have tents, or at the very least oversized umbrellas, to cover their goods, and by the nature of their passion, they're all outdoorsy people, used to working in the rain. So I grabbed my biggest umbrella and ventured out.

I was looking for leeks. I'd seen some the weekend before at the first market of the season, where the fresh veggie pickings were pretty slim aside from a few root crops: carrots, beets and shallots, and some nice looking chard and kale. (There'd been plenty of starters and houseplants, but there were not so many in the rain.)

Sure enough, Grady Walker from Green Fire Farm had come down from Hoopa with more of his beautiful leeks. I consulted with him about which size to choose. They ranged from downright huge, maybe three inches thick, down to the size you see at your supermarket, an inch thick or less. He assured me that the giants were as tender as the smaller ones, but I decided to go with what seemed a more manageable size.

I hadn't had a proper breakfast so I was also hoping to find Celebration Catering selling their shrimp tamales in the center of the plaza, but they'd either skipped the rainy day or called it quits early. The Andean band Huayllipacha was still playing sunny music, and there was Henry Robertson dishing out olives in his usual spot and chatting with our mutual friend Dexter Villamore. (The three of us worked together doing dinners at the City Grill a few years back.) Dexter had picked up some Green Fire leeks before me; he went with the jumbos because of a deal Grady had mentioned to me. While he was charging by the pound, he wouldn't ask more than $3 apiece, even for the biggest, heaviest leek.

Dexter had also purchased a dozen eggs from Wild Chick Farm, the ones I wrote about last week, and pointed out (to my embarrassment) that I had the price wrong: They were not $6 a dozen, only $4.50. I started over to apologize to the chicken farmers, but not before stopping at the Los Bagels stand for a glass of limeade. I'd tried it the week before, found it just sweet enough, and now it will be part of my market routine. The salesman explained that the drink was essentially a byproduct: The limes were purchased for those wonderful corn-lime cookies, which only require the zest, and the limeade was a variation on the old adage: "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade."

The Wild Chick women were happy to see me, and not overly upset with my error. In fact, they said they'd made several sales to people who realized that the eggs were cheaper by the dozen than expected (and they sold all of their eggs that day, despite the weather).

OK, back to those leeks. I bought them thinking I'd make some vichyssoise, the French-sounding potato/leek soup that may have American origins. There's not much to it: leeks, chicken stock and potatoes. Since there are no potatoes at the market this time of year, I had to stop by Wildberries for those -- a bag of organic Russian Banana Fingerlings grown in Colorado.

Not having made this soup for some time, I consulted my cookbook collection, mostly checking for proportions. In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child notes that the soup is an American invention based on a classic potato leek soup, or potage parmentier, as she puts it. Her recipe was pretty much the same as the one I found in The James Beard Cook Book, another of my basic reference works. I also did a Google search and found a recipe that suggested the soup was invented at the illustrious Algonquin Hotel, where Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and the New Yorker magazine crowd held court and traded quips around the fabled "Round Table." And there it was, a vichyssoise recipe in Feeding the Lions: An Algonquin Cook Book, a book my wife bought, probably because she likes Ms. Parker's wry humor. That one was a bit different, calling for celery, a ham bone and a bit of flour, and using water instead of stock, which will not make the same rich soup.

Wikipedia, on the other hand, declares that "there is a great deal of debate among culinary scholars regarding the history of vichyssoise. Some subscribe to the idea that it was created by Louis Diat, a chef at the Ritz-Carlton in New York City in 1917. Others contend that French chef Jules Gouffe was first to create the recipe, publishing a version in his 1869 Royal Cookery Book."

So where does it come from? Does Vichy figure in somehow? We may never know. Anyway, here's how to make it:

Thinly slice the white part of five leeks, which should make about 2 cups. (Watch for dirt.)

Sweat them, which is to say cook slowly in a covered pan, in a little bit of butter until they're soft, and be sure not to brown them.

Dice an equal portion of potatoes, peel them if they're ugly and you want a pretty soup, but if you use the white, thin-skinned type (like I did) leave them as is.

Add the potatoes to the leeks and cover with a quart of chicken stock. Add salt to taste. (Canned is OK, but I make my stock ahead, freeze it in ice trays and portion the stock cubes in freezer bags.)

Simmer for about 30 minutes or until the potatoes are soft.

Puree, either with a food mill and a sieve, or by whirring in a food processor or blender (be careful, it's hot) or, ideally, using a wand-like electric hand blender, a device designed for just this purpose that you stick right in your pot. (Mine was a yard sale score.)

Add a big splash of cream, or milk if that's all you've got.

At this point you have a choice: Eat it hot and call it Potato Leek Soup, or chill it and serve it cold later, using the more elegant-sounding name, Vichyssoise.

Me? I had a bowl for dinner hot; my wife had a cup. And for my second helping I added some fine diced ham in honor of the Algonquin. I'll eat the rest tomorrow cold, garnished with a spoonful of sour cream and a sprinkling of snipped chives, and maybe a couple of dashes of Tabasco Sauce, just to spice things up.

I haven't decided what to do with the extra leek I have left over.


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