Vichyssoise soup

A chilled leek and potato soup, often tinned, always excessively creamy, featured on virtually every summer menu in mid-1970s Soho, but its origins go back much further. Louis Diat, the chef at New York’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, claimed to have invented it in the 1930s saying, as all French chefs do, that it was inspired by his mother’s Potage bonne femme. Anywhere other than the States it could only be made in winter, as leeks were, and remain to this day, a strictly winter vegetable. The Yanks of course have no truck with something so silly as nature’s natural cycles and grow everything all year round. Diat probably didn’t invent the soup but he got to name it after his home town, Vichy (not as some experts claim because it should be made with Vichy water). What is unarguable is that the soup is a classic.

I wasn’t aware of the seasonal nature of leeks on the morning of my first day as a professional chef, when this soup was the first dish, on the first menu, of my short career. A shopping expedition to Berwick Street market produced no leeks and considerable panic. A phone call to my mother put me straight on the stupidity of using leeks in summer, but she did suggest that I try spring onions instead. Another sortie, this time to Chinatown, resulted in me finding enormous green spring onions and these were what I used to make the Vichyssoise. Leeks are in the shops all year round these days, but I suggest you avoid them in summer as they have woody cores and a sour taste. All vegetables have natural seasons which cooks ignore at their peril.

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Ingredients

  • 2 bunches large spring onions or 4 small leeks, trimmed, rinsed and coarsely chopped
  • 1 kg potatoes, peeled and diced (do not use new potatoes but virtually any other sort will do)
  • 50 g butter
  • salt and pepper
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • 500 ml milk
  • 250 ml double cream
  • 1 small bunch chives, finely snipped

Method

Melt the butter in a reliable saucepan over a low heat. Add the spring onions or leeks and sweat for 2 or 3 minutes. Season moderately with salt, pepper and a little nutmeg, then add the diced potatoes. Turn the heat up to medium and continue sweating the vegetables for about 5 minutes. The potatoes may well begin to stick, a sure sign for you to proceed to the next stage, which is to add the milk and just enough water to barely cover the vegetables. Stir and continue simmering, still on a medium flame, until the potatoes begin to break up. Allow to cool slightly then reserve 250 ml of the liquid and purée everything else: if the soup is too thick, add the extra fluid; if the consistency is fine, throw the surplus away. Pour in the cream, stir well, check the seasoning and refrigerate until well chilled.

Serving

Traditionally this soup is sipped from rather elegant cups known, oddly enough, as soup-cups. I see nothing wrong with this but please remember to sprinkle the top of the soup with finely snipped chives.