Potage bonne femme

The British, when eating out, rarely seem to want to see a menu in plain English. Historically this is due to the preponderance of immigrants owning, running, cooking in or serving in catering establishments of all types. When dining out, we go for a Chinese, a Thai, an Indian or, for over a century, if the meal is to be a posh one, then it has to be French. Soho and the West End in general were full of pseudo bistros, brasseries and up-market restaurants, all with remarkably similar menus. The soups or, more accurately, Les Potages, were perhaps the most homogeneous of all: Soupe à l’oignon gratinée, Bisque d’homard, Consommé chaud ou froid, Crème des tomates and Vichyssoise froid ou chaud, were on virtually every menu. Most of them were out of a tin and pretty vile, particularly the last. Vichyssoise is by definition a cold soup and heating it up did nothing to improve its already dubious provenance. Matters got much better on the little card listing Les Plats du Jour, where if you were lucky you might read Potage bonne femme or Crème de cresson. These were much likelier to be made on the premises and, in the unlikely event of the chef actually being French, could well be delicious.

Potage bonne femme is nothing more than a homely hot leek and potato soup but, puréed with judicious additions, it becomes a whole tribe of soups, some of which I detail in the following pages. Leek and potato has, since childhood, been my favourite soup, thus featuring strongly on my menus over the years. Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay, both working in exalted temples of ‘Modern British’ cooking, in actual fact cook rigorously French food; and I notice variations on this soup seem to crop up on their menus quite regularly.

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Ingredients

  • 2 medium leeks, trimmed of outer layers, earthy ends and the darkest and damaged part of the green
  • 25 g butter
  • 3 medium potatoes, bakers or reds, peeled and coarsely diced
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 litre Chicken Stock or water

Method

Slice the leeks, put in a large bowl of warm water, and swirl them about to rinse off any dirt. Warm water is pretty vital here as leeks often contain sand or mud, neither of which is readily soluble in cold water. Using your hands or a spider lift the leeks out of their bath and into a colander. Rinse the bowl out thoroughly and repeat the process. If you simply pour the leeks from the bowl into the colander, all the carefully washed-out dirt will get back on them. (The Roux brothers insist that washing leeks in warm water improves their flavour.)

Melt the butter in a large solid-based saucepan and add the drained leeks. Sweat these over a medium flame for 5 minutes or so; the leeks should partially collapse and glisten from their coating of butter, but should not take on any significant amount of colour. Add the diced potatoes and sweat for a further 5 minutes; they will start to stick after this time, a sure sign that their sweating period is over. Season judiciously with salt and pepper and add enough stock or water to cover the vegetables. Stir to make sure nothing is stuck to the bottom of the pan, turn the heat up high and boil until the potatoes are tender, about 15-20 minutes. Allow to cool a little, then liquidise. Adjust seasoning and reheat if necessary before serving.

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