Watercress vichyssoise

Creamy and unexpectedly chilled, watercress vichyssoise makes a cool first course for the last hot days of summer – or paired with a crusty bread, a satisfying light lunch.

Blue Kitchen
The often overlooked herb watercress gives this chilled soup a peppery flavor.

How has this happened? Summer is almost gone, and we haven’t gotten around to making any cold soups. No gazpacho. None of Marion’s delicious attempts at recreating the cold cucumber bisque we used to get at Café Balaban in St. Louis — she never matches our fading memories of it (it’s been years since we’ve had it or they’ve even served it), but she always creates something summery and fresh. So when I saw a simple, authentic sounding recipe for vichyssoise over at Katie’s Thyme for Cooking, I had to give it a try.

One reason the idea of vichyssoise appealed to me, I have to admit, was the opening of Anthony Bourdain’s highly entertaining book "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly." He talks about his very first realization that food was more than mere fuel. Even though I read it back when it first came out in 2000, this passage stays with me:

"My first indication that food was something other than a substance one stuffed in one’s face when hungry — like filling up at a gas station — came after fourth grade in elementary school. It was on a family vacation to Europe, on the Queen Mary, in the cabin-class dining room. There’s a picture somewhere: my mother in her Jackie O sunglasses, my younger brother and I in our painfully cute cruisewear, boarding the big Cunard ocean liner, all of us excited about our first transatlantic voyage, our first trip to my father’s ancestral homeland, France.

"It was the soup.

"It was cold."

As Bourdain explains, it was something of a discovery for someone whose entire experience with soup to this point had consisted of Campbell’s. Here’s how he describes that first taste of vichyssoise:

"I remember everything about the experience: the way our waiter ladled it from a silver tureen into my bowl; the crunch of tiny chopped chives he spooned on as a garnish; the rich, creamy taste of leek and potato; the pleasurable shock, the surprise that it was cold."

Bourdain realizes that vichyssoise has become an old warhorse of a menu selection, but says the very name “still has a magical ring to it.” Good enough for me. I had to make some.

But first, I did a little reading. Turns out this most French-sounding soup was created in New York in 1917. By a Frenchman, though — Louis Diat, head chef at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. He based it on a warm potato and leek soup, a classic French soup that he made from a recipe his mother had given him. Julia Child’s version of this traditional Potage Parmentier in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" is simplicity itself. Of course, much of French cooking is deceptively, elegantly simple.

One variation on this basic soup includes watercress. The slightly peppery crisp taste of this herb sounded like it would the perfect addition to this creamy, cold soup.

The recipe below came together from reading several recipes. The one common thread seemed to be more or less equal amounts of leeks and potatoes, so I started there.

Watercress Vichyssoise
  4 to 6 first-course servings (see Kitchen Notes)

3 cups chopped leeks (about 2 leeks, the white and pale green parts only)
 1 tablespoon butter
 3 cups peeled, chopped potatoes (3 to 4 medium)
 1-1/2 cups low sodium chicken broth (see Kitchen Notes)
 4 cups roughly chopped watercress (about 1 large bunch — see Kitchen Notes)
 1-1/3 cups half & half
 additional sprigs of watercress for garnish, optional
 salt, to taste

1. Clean and prepare leeks. Slice off root end and most of the green tops. Slice leeks in half lengthwise. Rinse under running water, fanning layers to wash out any trapped grit. Slice crosswise in 3/4-inch pieces.

2. Peel and chop potatoes into fairly small chunks. I used Yukon Gold because we like the flavor.

3. Heat a large, deep saucepan over medium-low flame. Melt butter in pan and add leeks. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring frequently — you want to sweat the leeks, not brown them.

4. Add potatoes and broth, plus just enough water to cover the potatoes — I added almost a cup. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer the mixture uncovered until potatoes are almost tender, 15 minutes or so. Stir in chopped watercress and cook an additional 5 minutes. Add a little water if necessary to cover — I added another 1/4 cup. But the point is to keep the mixture thick, so the final soup will be thick and creamy. Remove from heat. After mixture cools slightly, place in refrigerator and chill completely, at least a few hours. Can be made a day in advance up to this point.

Purée chilled mixture completely in blender or food processor in two batches and transfer to a large bowl. Stir in half & half and add salt to taste. Ladle out individual servings and garnish with watercress sprigs, if desired. Serve immediately.

Kitchen Notes

Our planned Sunday dinner fell through, so I divided the puréed mixture (without half & half) into two batches. I mixed half of the half & half into one batch, and it became two generous servings for us. The other batch will meet just such a fate in a day or two.

Going vegetarian. It’s easy to make this vegetarian. Just replace the chicken broth with more water and salt. That’s how the Julia Child recipe for Potage Parmentier is made. I wouldn’t substitute vegetable broth because that brings a lot of other flavors to the party, I think.

Watercress. Because you purée the soup, you can use stems and all. Just rinse the watercress beforehand. Watercress is a sometimes overlooked herb — undeservedly so.

And by the way, it’s pronounced vee shee SWAHZ. Louis Diat apparently named it Creme Vichyssoise Glacee, or Chilled Cream Vichyssoise, in honor of the town Vichy, where he was born.

Related post on Blue Kitchen: Seven chilled soups for summer

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