There are several reasons why Chez Panisse, the restaurant credited with being one of the drivers of the "eat fresh and local" movement, is located in Berkeley, California instead of the upper Midwest: November through May. Right now it's -2 degrees Fahrenheit, on the way to a daily high of 1 degree Fahrenheit, and the ground is covered in snow. There's not much going on in the way of fresh and local, besides the -27 degree windchill. Granted, if you're an industrious sort you have frozen and canned produce you put up last summer and fall to tide you over through the winter. I do freeze strawberries, blueberries, applesauce, and peeled, cubed butternut squash, but I draw the line at canning. Mostly it's because I really can't cope with the mushy texture of canned vegetables, but it's also because I am surprisingly impatient and slapdash for an obsessive-compulsive perfectionist. My canning venture would likely start with skipping the crucial step of sterilizing the jars in order to save time and end with driving a botulism-sickened Mike to the ER.
So instead of sketchily canned vegetables, I rely on large bags of corn, peas, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts from the freezer aisle, pre-washed organic salad greens, and select items of produce that still taste decent after thousands of miles of transit or months of cold storage. Sturdy items like potatoes and squash obviously figure prominently, and cabbage is a solid bet if you need something crispy. But when I really need a freshness fix, particularly on those sub-zero days when I've just calculated that CSA season is six and half months away, I turn to leeks. Obviously, supermarket leeks from California are not as sweet or tender as Minnesota-grown leeks in their prime. However, they are magnitudes better than playing Russian roulette with botulism or eating my sixth serving of microwaved frozen peas in one week. And if you make the leeks into a hearty potato-leek soup, and serve it with a side of warm bread in your well-insulated house, you might even forget about the windchill for an all-too-brief moment.
But in that moment, you feel the warmest you have all day.
Adapted from The Heart of the Plate by Mollie Katzen
- 2 medium russet potatoes (1 pound), cut into 1 inch pieces (about 2 cups)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 large leeks (2 pounds), trimmed, sliced into 1/4 inch pieces, and separated into rings (about 6 cups)
- pepper, to taste
Place the potatoes in a medium saucepan and add 4 cups of water and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer until potatoes are mushy, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat a Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the olive oil and tilt to evenly coat bottom. Add the leeks and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks start to soften, about 2 minutes. Reduce heat to low, stirring occasionally, for an additional 5 minutes. Cover and cook on low until leeks are completely softened, about 5 minutes.
Add the prepared potatoes and their cooking water to the leeks. Season with pepper to taste, and add remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.
In batches, puree soup in blender until leeks and potato skins have broken down into small pieces. Pour soup into a medium saucepan over low heat to keep warm. Reheat to serve if needed.