Potato & leek soup to warm the soul


Tupac and Biggie may be long gone, but the rivalry between the East and West Coasts rages on.

“It’s too fast-paced. And I could never leave this weather,” a typical West Coaster might say in conversation with someone from the other side of the country.

“I prefer four seasons,” the reply may come, not without a tint of defensiveness.

I used to scoff at that line, thinking it was a way that people out east made peace with the fact that they had bad weather most of the year. Freezing, snowy winters and hot, humid summers? No thank you.

But it’s fall in D.C., and as we prepare to pack our stuff and head west for what could be a permanent move, I’m waxing all sorts of nostalgic about the four seasons I have enjoyed for the better part of a decade.

What East Coasters mean when they say they love the seasons is not just the lazy summer days spent wading in pools and beaches or the frigid nights spent curled up near a fireplace with hot cocoa, but those transitional seasons too, when this region truly shines. Spring is so fleeting in D.C., a blip between the wintry nights and the humid summers. But fall. Oh, the fall!

Don’t get me wrong: The West Coast runs through my veins. But as I weigh the prospect of overcast, drizzly Seattle winters, springs, summers and autumns (this sums it up), I can’t help but feel like the endless spectrum of reds, oranges and yellow out my window are begging me to stay.

Fall is when D.C. struts its feathers. Parts of the city look simply ablaze. It is awe inspiring.

And it is in D.C. that I learned to love the fall harvest. Butternut squashes, beets, peppers, leeks…. Just as the shifting weather signals a change in activities, so the food a new season of tastes. Soon we’ll be gathering with loved ones at Thanksgiving tables around the country.

I learned to love fall’s bounty from a coworker, mentor and friend, Arnie, who passed away this year. I always think of him when I roast the first squash of the season, and how emphatically he explained his love of autumn to me. He loved food, and life, and enjoyed both to the fullest.

Foliage itself is a reminder of life’s fleeting nature, and I can’t help but think of Arnie and others I’ve lost. Fall is also when we lost my mother-in-law, in the midst of a mild and still-green Texas autumn. And it reminds me of the loss I am still reeling from, the brutal end of my friend Jim’s life. He went missing two years ago on Thanksgiving Day.

Loss is difficult to cope with, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t confront it. This is life, the whole cycle of it, and as trees shed their leaves in anticipation of another frigid winter, we can all rest assured that another spring is around the corner.

This potato-and-leek soup is an autumn staple for me, the recipe I jump to each time I get a leek in my hands. It’s so full of flavor and so comforting. The recipe itself is pretty standard, but the addition of the vinegar adds a little zip that I think elevates the soup. The herbs are also key, given how subtle the flavor of leeks and potatoes are otherwise, as is the pepper. I use a blend of white, pink and black peppercorns for a bit of complexity, but you don’t have to. It’s a flexible recipe, and one I hope will soothe and warm you.

To Arnie, who loved the fall. And to Jim, who deserved to see this fall.

Potato and leek soup
Serves 4

Note: The hardest part about this recipe is cleaning the leeks (and it isn’t hard, just a little time-consuming). Cut the root end of the leek off, as well as the dark leaves, retaining the white and light green stem. Slice it lengthwise and then dice it. Fill a large bowl with cold water and add the leeks, pulling them apart with your fingers to help the grit fall through. Let the leeks stand in the water for at least 30 minutes, then pull them out with a strainer or your fingers, leaving the dirt to rest at the bottom of the water. Pat dry.

4 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 leeks, diced
1 large russet potato, diced

2 bay leaves
1 sprig each of sage leaves and thyme, optional

2 cups chicken stock
2 cups whole milk

salt & pepper
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar

Melt the butter in a heavy pot, such as a dutch oven, over medium-high heat. Add the leeks and potato and stir for 10 minutes. Do not let the vegetables brown. (You can add a bit of salt now to prevent browning.)

Add the bay leaves and addition herbs, if using. Stir for a minute to let the herbs bloom (until you can smell them), then add the chicken stock. Bring to a boil, drop the heat to a simmer, and cook until the potatoes are soft, about 30 minutes.

Remove the bay leaf and herbs, and transfer to a blender or use an immersion blender to puree. Return to pot, add milk, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Heat the soup to just under a boil, drizzle the red wine vinegar in, and serve.

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