Thursday, September 17, 2009

Potage Parmentier

Potage Parmentier...Roll that name over your tongue and your mind for a moment.

Potage Parmentier…what an incredible dish that must be! Does it contain a trio of complementary French cheeses, melted over something divine? A subtle hollandaise-like sauce drenching a perfectly poached salmon fillet? Mushrooms sautéed in a beautiful burgundy, set lightly atop a tender piece of filet mignon? Whatever it is, with a name like that, it must be good.

Ingredient list for Potage Parmentier: potatoes, leeks, water.

If you like, you can add salt, pepper, and/or butter. You heathen.

Seriously, you have to give props to a language so beautiful that it can make a three-ingredient (two, really) potato soup sound like a gourmet delicacy. That’s just not easy to do, no matter how much you like potatoes).

Potage Parmentier was the first of Julia Child’s recipes that Julie Powell made, so I was excited to try it out. I was particularly excited because it involves leeks.

For much of my life, I’ve had a dysfunctional relationship with leeks. Well, not dysfunctional so much as enigmatic and elusive. For reasons known only to Safeway and God, the supermarkets I shop at do not carry leeks; so, for a very long time, I had no idea what leeks looked like, or what they were (other than that they were some sort of vegetable). Were they a type of tuber? Were they a fancy kind of green bean? I had no idea, but there was something about the name 'leek’ that appealed to me, and I always wanted to know what they were and what you do with them. This was in the days before google, so there was no fast solution to the problem.

Eventually I found out that leeks are basically green onions on steroids. So, when I stumbled across them at the farmer’s market recently, I was able to recognize what they were. And I instantly grabbed up several bunches of them. In retrospect, it might have been a good idea to wait until I had a clue what to do with them.

I brought them home, and gazed at them lovingly. I poked them. I sniffed them. I admired the cool way the green stalks braided together as they merged down into the light green and white parts. I turned them over. I contemplated them in grave silence. And then I put them into the vegetable drawer. Or, I tried to—they didn’t fit because they were too long and had too many leaves. So I put them on a shelf in the refrigerator, and tried my best to pretend they didn’t exist. This attempt was thwarted by Brian, who repeatedly complained loudly about how much refrigerator space they were taking up. (To be fair to him, they are huge, and take up way more space than their utility justifies).

Motivated by a need to justify my purchase, I remembered that the book ‘French Women Don’t Get Fat’ had a recipe (2 in fact) for turning leeks into the primary ingredient of a cleansing fast. I figured, hey, no way I’m fasting, but if it’s good enough to let you fast without feeling deprived, it must be good. So I made it. And I ate some of it.

I tried. I really did. I tried hard. I wanted to like it, wanted it bad. I managed to eat some, and decided it was an acquired taste. I tried some more again at the next meal. I tried it with balsamic vinegar drizzled over. I tried it with lemon and pepper. I tried it with my eyes closed and my nose plugged. I then came to the inevitable conclusion that leeks are pure evil.

I’ve witnessed an interesting phenomenon in women who give birth. They tell you in no uncertain terms that they will not have another baby, ever. Then, after about 2 years, they have a child who is no longer an infant, and who isn’t so much of a constant challenge/sleep succubus as their infant was, and they forget why they said they weren’t going to have another baby. And so they have another one. Repeat cycle ad nauseum.

I was amazed to discover that the same phenomenon exists with people who firmly conclude that leeks are the food of Satan. They swear they will never eat leeks again, but then with time, as the vile memory fades, they begin to think about leeks in a different way. “Maybe it was because the leeks were the primary ingredient” they say to themselves. “Maybe if it were a minor ingredient, it would be a different story.” Of course, it's possible the leek-blindness is specific only to me.

So I decided to try out the Potage Parmentier. Since my copy of ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ hasn’t arrived yet (oh yes, you know I ordered it), I was left with a bit of a conundrum. Julie Powell describes the recipe in a general way only, listing the ingredients, but not their proportions. But, miracle of miracles, I do now live in the age of google. So, I googled it!

Have you ever heard the expression ‘a man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never sure’? Yeah, well. It applies to Potage Parmentier as well. For most recipes I’ve googled, there are variations to be sure, but there is a basic core to the recipe that stays the same throughout. The same basic proportions are represented between ingredients, and the same basic methods are used. Not so for my Potage. Some recipes called for a ratio of 1 large leek for every three medium sized potatoes. Others suggested one medium sized potato for 3 large leeks. Do you peel the potatoes? Some do, some don’t. And how much water should you used? Enough to just cover the ingredients, or more? How long do you simmer for? What do you do with the simmered veggies, leave them whole, put them through a food mill, mash with a fork? The answer to all of the above is…anyone?

So, I sucked it up, and made some decisions. Given my previous decision that leeks should not be the main ingredient of a dish, I went with 1 large leek: three medium potatoes, and went from there. Here is the basic recipe that I tried:

Potage Parmentier…Maybe....
4 large leeks (or the equivalent number of smaller leeks)

12 medium potatoes (or the equivalent number of smaller potatoes)

Water to just cover the ingredients

Salt to taste (I did)

Pepper to taste (I did)

Butter to taste (I did in one bowl, but decided it wasn’t necessary)

1) Dice the leeks and potatoes; dice leeks thinly. I did not peel the potatoes, because much of the nutrients are in the peels.

2) Cover the leeks and potatoes with water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer until veggies are mushable (about 45 mins).

3) Mush veggies with a spoon, getting all the big lumps, but leaving the little ones.

4) Add salt, pepper, and/or butter as needed.

When I made this, I used too much water, so have adjusted it here; in my original attempt, there was a layer of water that kept separating from the rest of the soup.

The soup was good, and very economical (about $6 for enough to feed 2 people for 3-4 meals as a main course); I would certainly make it again. However, it wasn’t quite as yummy as Julie Powell described in her book, so I suspect my final recipe may not be the ultimate version. I’ll let you know when I receive my copy of MtAoFC. In the meantime, I am intrigued by versions of the recipe that used chicken stock rather than water to simmer the veggies…But I’ll wait to see what Julia has to say.

In the meantime, I’ll say what I know she says: Bon appétit!

© Michelle M. Chouinard 2007 All rights reserved.

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