Dan planted leeks towards the end of last summer, hoping they would over-winter and grow nice and big by spring. Because our growing season in Seattle is so short, we’ve learned that anything we put in the ground after May is going to have a difficult time. But, we had our fingers crossed for an Indian Summer since we
kind of got ripped of during normal summer (similar to the previous year). Although we did have a nicer-than-average fall, the leeks still didn’t get very big. We decided to go ahead and dig them up before the snow and, although it wasn’t a spectacular harvest, we ended up with more than enough for a nice pot of Potato Leek soup.
This simple, unassuming soup holds a lot of memories for me. I first ate it when my dear friend Pierre made it in South Korea in 1999. Whenever I craved something besides rice, soup and kimchee (which was often considering that Koreans eat some version of this 3 times/day), Pierre would come to the rescue. He would make himself at home in any kitchen, including my homestay in Chongup. My homestay mom LOVED him.
My last few months in Korea were spent teaching at Seoul Foreign School and at an adult English language academy (hagwon). At the time, I was living in a huge, Fulbright-owned house in the Pyongchang neighborhood in Seoul. I had roommates for a little while but as everyone went their own ways, I ended up all alone in that big house on top of a very steep hill. There was a tiny restaurant with sporadic serving hours and a little grocery store at the bottom of the hill, but gone were the days of 3 square meals provided by my homestay mom and school cook in Chongup. Some of the Fulbright gang would visit on the weekends, and Pierre was always my favorite guest. He taught me how to make this soup after first showing me how to balance an umbrella on your chin after spinning around several times with your forehead pressed against the end of the umbrella while the umbrella is planted on the floor.
Pierre is a genius in the kitchen and in life; I look forward to reading his autobiography some day. His mom is French Canadian and his dad is Korean. He’s a Yale grad and earned his PhD in Medical Anthropology at McGill University in Montreal. He speaks French, Spanish, Korean, Russian and of course English (I’m probably missing another language or two). He likely speaks a bit of Creole as well since he frequently visits Haiti, where he’s done a ton of research and volunteer work. He used to earn a living performing a variety of cultural dances in the subway stations in Montreal. He plays classical piano by ear. He’s crafty, thoughtful, and hilarious. Within 30 seconds of meeting him after we landed in Seoul, I knew we’d be lifelong friends. Our 8 week language and culture orientation was held at Kangwan University in Chunchon, and in that short time most of our cohort of 24 grew very close, as we were all dealing with extreme culture shock. We took a lot of comfort in being 20-somethings, traveling, and conversing in our native tongue together. The group had great chemistry as a whole, but Pierre and I were particularly inseparable.
This lovely soup allows for plenty of experimentation. So much so that I’m not going to list exact measurements because it really doesn’t matter if you have more leeks than potatoes or more potatoes than leeks. What matters is how you like to make it. It’s even delicious in vegan mode. Twelve years later, here is Pierre’s soup, all grown up and adorned with some non-Korean ingredients I keep on hand:
- 2 or 3 Tbsp butter, bacon grease, or olive oil…your fat of choice.
- 2-3 medium leeks, white and light green parts only, chopped. Because leeks get dirt in all nooks and crannies as they grow, I recommend chopping them up first, then rinsing the pieces off in a colander. Drain well.
- 4 or so medium potatoes, peeled and chopped, any type will do. I like Yukon Golds in this soup.
- Enough vegetable or chicken stock to cover everything plus 1/2 inch extra once it’s in the pot, about 3 cups.
- Small handful of herbs…thyme, tarragon, basil, dill…whatever you love. Preferably fresh.
- About 1/2 cup of whole milk, half & half, cream, coconut milk (if you’re going vegan). Use more or less, whatever suits your creaminess preference.
- Salt and pepper to taste.
Caramelize the leeks in the fat over med-high heat in a heavy pot, about 10 minutes. The edges should be nice and brown but not burnt. Adjust the heat to medium if it feels like they’re browning too fast. Add the potatoes, herbs and broth. Stir, bring to a boil then lower the heat and simmer until the potatoes are soft. I like to use my immersion blender at this point to make the soup nice and creamy, leaving a few potato chunks. Add milk/cream and salt and pepper. Ladle into bowls and finish with fun toppings: Bacon bits, a drizzle of white truffle oil*, breadcrumbs, pesto…whatever strikes your fancy.
I know I probably don’t have to say it, but serve with good bread.
*I’m a truffle nerd, mushroom forager, and general fungus aficionado. Dan and I have been to the Oregon Truffle Festival a couple times and are going back again this year. Raw shaved truffles are the best thing to put on anything, but if you don’t have these laying around (most mere mortals don’t), a good-tasting oil will do just fine. One that I really like and recommend if you can come by it is the oil from Jack Czarnecki and the Joel Palmer House in Dayton, OR. If you’re limited to shopping at a grocery store, a good rule of thumb is: The smaller and more expensive the bottle, the better the oil. If you think truffles look weird and are for dandies, you can substitute shaved parmesan which lends a delicious nutty finish.