Easter dinner in our house always begins with a chilled soup. Even if the weather outside isn't exactly spring-like, it's a welcome reminder that warmer days are on the way. But mainly, it's because a cold first course can be made ahead and, as a bonus, is often the better for it.
My usual is a chilled carrot puree, but this year my spouse asked for vichyssoise, the cold soup that has become practically synonymous with the idea.
It may seem a bit old-fashioned, having been around for more than a century and unhappily, having been done to death (and all too often done badly) in the "gourmet" seventies and eighties of the last century. But when carefully and well made, vichyssoise is a deeply satisfying and delicious beginning for any meal (or as a meal in itself), and that should never be out of style.
It's sometimes argued that this iconic soup is really American because it is commonly believed to have been created at New York's Ritz Hotel in 1917 by Chef Louis Diat, and was only named for Vichy because it was a resort near Diat's home town. But Diat was French and some historians believe he first offered a version of this soup when he was the chef potager (soup chef) at the Ritz in Paris, long before he crossed the pond to Manhattan.
But regardless of where he first made it, Diat himself said that his "crème vichyssoise glacée" that first appeared on the Ritz menu in 1917 was just a classic French potage parmentier (leek and potato puree) diluted with milk and served cold. Moreover, he got the idea for it from his mother, who used to give him that very thing as a cold snack to quiet his childish hunger.
Besides, as old guard Southerners used to say of interlopers with questionable lineage, if your cat had kittens in the oven, would you call them biscuits?
Well. As interesting its history may be and regardless of what nationality we pin on this classic cold soup, what really matters is that the making of it should be anything but cold or indifferent. It's very simple, but like most simple things, requires rather more care than less. Lavish it with all the care that you can, then, and rediscover why it remains a timeless classic.
Crème Vichyssoise Glacée
A few notes on ingredients are in order. The cooking liquid in many modern recipes is often chicken broth, but classic potage parmentier is made with water or white stock (a mild veal-based stock). I find, and think you will too, that chicken broth is too heavy for this soup. It has a lighter, cleaner, and fresher flavor when made with water.
The old recipes also call for only the white parts of the leeks and white potatoes, the object being to produce a soup that's snowy white. But what matters more than appearances is flavor, and there's a lot more of that to be had when the tender pale inner greens of the leeks are included, and the potatoes are chosen for the way they taste rather than their lack of color.
4 large or 5 medium leeks
1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split, peeled and thinly sliced (about generous 1 cup)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 cups (5-6 medium) peeled and thinly sliced Yukon Gold potatoes,
About 4 cups water
Kosher or sea salt
Whole white peppercorns in a mill
1 cup whole milk
1 cup cream
3 tablespoons thinly sliced chives or tender inner leek greens
1. To clean the leeks, lay one flat on a cutting board, and slice off the root without removing the root base. With the knife blade held parallel to the board, carefully cut it in half lengthwise. Holding each half root-end-up under running water, bend back the layers and wash away all the sand and dirt between them. Drain it well and thinly slice both the white and pale tender greens. You should have about 3 cups.
2. Warm the butter in a heavy-bottomed 4-quart saucepan or enameled iron Dutch oven over low heat. Add the onion and leeks and sweat until they're softened and translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the potatoes and enough water to barely but completely cover them. Add a generous pinch of salt, raise the heat to medium high, and bring it to a boil. Adjust the heat to a steady simmer and cook until the potatoes are tender and easily pierced with a fork, about 10 minutes.
3. Let it cool for a few minutes, then puree the soup in batches with a blender or food processor. It will be quite thick. Transfer it to a bowl and stir until cooled. Season lightly with white pepper, then taste and adjust the seasonings. Let it cool completely, then cover tightly and refrigerate until it's well chilled, at least 4 hours. It can be made 2-3 days ahead.
4. When you are ready to serve, stir in the milk and cream. If it seems a little too thick, thin it with chilled water, not more milk. Taste and adjust the salt. To serve, ladle it into chilled bowls or cups, and garnish with a sprinkling of chives or leek greens and a light grinding of white pepper.