Thursday, April 24, 2008


My debut as a Washington hostess was not the cool-headed, pearl-strung affair I imagined as a little girl with big political dreams (and by little girl I mean a 26-year-old, last week).

It was a gorgeous day, demanding icy margaritas on a cherry blossom’d patio, not a less-than-happy hour or three spent near a hot stove. The only cherry blossoms in sight were the red splotches emanating from my over-warm cheeks.

There are times in life and in the kitchen when nothing seems to go your way. This was one of those times. The pork tenderloin was disappointingly fatty and oddly shaped and I was so generally frustrated that in attempting to tenderize it, I managed to tear it into pieces with a wooden cutting board. FYI: pork is not a punching bag.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that if Jackie Kennedy ever cooked – which let’s face it, is highly unlikely – she would never be reduced to a furrow-browed, damp-necked, expletive-spewing mess.

But despite its manic inception, the meal actually turned out quite wonderfully, including the ragged tenderloin, prepared according to Mark Bittman's genius and defiantly simple recipe (I adapted for a crowd and did the first browning in the oven).

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if Jackie ever ate – which, let’s face it, is also highly unlikely – I believe she would have offered gracious endorsement of our delicate first course: cool vichyssoise soup.

My guide was a 1965 recipe from the notable 20th century gourmand Michael Field, who edited the insanely popular and influential TIME-LIFE cookbook series. He explained that the decidedly Francophilian (not a word, but should be) leek and potato concoction we know as vichyssoise actually originated in the U. S.

Mr. Field instructs that “a cold soup tends to be pallid and should be pampered with a bit with good stock and thick cream if it is to make any impression on the palate at all.” Well, I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing I detest like a pallid soup. I gave that vichyssoise all the TLC my poor tenderloin was missing.

The result was refreshing (no small feat considering how much butter and cream went into it), and, I believe, well seasoned (taking a cue from Michael Ruhlman in The Elements of Cooking, I seasoned with salt all the way through, from cooking the leeks to the final taste test.) My soup needed a bit of extra salt because I used vegetable broth instead of chicken broth to accommodate a vegetarian guest.

Mr. Field cannot underestimate the importance of a good stock – a point on which he and the well-bred, horse-loving Jackie would agree on – but I don't believe much was lost in translation to canned vegetable broth. The spirit of Franco-American diplomacy, of cool buttery sips and saucy cocktail chatter, reigned supreme. Jackie would have not only approved but maybe – just maybe – asked for a second helping.

Vegetarian Vichyssoise

Adapted from Michael Field, Michael Field's Cooking School, 1965.

4 cups vegetable broth
4 tbsp. butter
2-3 medium to large leeks, white and light green parts, finely chopped (about 1 ½ cups)
1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1/3 cup)
2 pints potatoes, sliced about ¼-inch thick
Several big pinches of sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper (or white pepper, if a perfectly white soup is important to you)
1 cup heavy cream
4 tbsp. finely cut chives

  1. Melt the butter over low heat in a large, heavy skillet. Add the onion, leeks, and a big pinch of salt and cook slowly for about 20 minutes, stirring every now and then and adjusting the heat so the vegetables barely color.
  2. When the vegetables are soft and translucent, transfer them to a 3- or 4-quart saucepan. Add the stock, potatoes, another big pinch of salt, and bring it all to a boil. Reduce the heat at once, partially cover the pan, and simmer until the potatoes are soft and crumble easily with a fork. Remove from the heat and allow to cool enough to handle safely in a food processor.
  3. Working in batches, pulse the soup in a food processor a few times – it shouldn’t be perfectly smooth, so resist the temptation to over-blend it. Taste for seasoning, add salt if necessary and a few cranks of black pepper.
  4. Cover the bowl and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled. Serve in chilled cups with a sprinkle of chives on top of each portion.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.


Dave, 'LunaPierCook' said...

Hey! I have that same Michael Fields "Cooking School" book!! I bought it at a yard sale a couple years back for 50 cents. Of course, someone with a black marker had given his back-cover photo a bad goatee ... I've been hoping at some point to try to make the Chlodnik soup that follows this Vichyssoise recipe, the Chlodnik sounding particularly amazing.

I'm sure that, even with your frustrations, your dinner would have turned out wonderfully no matter what. I think you've probably become a better cook than you realize.

Nora Leah Sherman said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Dave! And what in the world is Chlodnik soup?? Please give it a go and let us know!

Dave, 'LunaPierCook' said...

What's Chlodnik soup? I guess I didn't make that clear ... same book, "Michael Fields Cooking School" ... right after the Vichyssoise recipe. All that shrimp in a soup sounds great!

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chefjp said...

You can't go wrong with margaritas on a patio in April, eh?