Cooking with Nothing: Potato Leek Soup

I found an old piece of writing today from 2008 that I wanted to share. I wrote this when I had first moved to England. The night I arrived, we had almost nothing to cook with: no tools, no food, and not much time either.

"Cooking with Nothing" is a theme I return to often, and I wrote this piece in hopes to building a longer work out of it, like a full-length cookbook filled with recipes that follow the same principle. It hasn't happened (yet), but it definitely speaks to my guiding cooking philosophy. -Jill Duffy

Cooking with Nothing
My boyfriend and I have just moved to England three weeks ago. I knew when I initially decided to come that one of the things that would change most about my life here was how I cooked. I’m an avid home cook, though not an overly ambitious one, the kind of person who prepares fresh meals five or six times a week for the enjoyment, the health benefits, and because I’m cheap. I’ve been cooking long enough to be able to competently whip together a pretty tasty dinner out of whatever happens to be in the fridge and cupboards in 20 minutes or less. I don’t have a pantry, but I do have a nice cast-enamel Le Crueset Dutch oven (which didn’t make the journey to England). I don’t have a rolling pin, but I do have two good knives. I might not even have a colander, but I between my spider and metal tongs, I make do.

We’re in England for only 12 months, though I’ve already declared that I might not last more than 10. Boyfriend is attending a career-enhancing master’s program, and I’ve been lucky enough to transfer my editing job with me abroad. So it’s not like I’m hanging around the house all day, taking a year off from life, experimenting with recipes for Yorkshire pudding or chateau briand; we’re average people and we lead lives that are pretty close to the chaotic American norm. The difference is that here we are poorer (the exchange rate is currently about $2 to the British pound), and we weren’t able to bring all our necessities with us.

We brought what we could carry in our allowed luggage plus one extra suitcase at a fee of $100, and we’re trying hard not to buy anything unless we are truly uncomfortable or psychologically maimed without it. So for example, we have no television set and we don’t plan to get one. We need an extra blanket on the bed, but we’re waiting for the temperature to drop another 5 degrees before we cross that bridge. I’d love to have a blender, but I wouldn’t risk using an adapter on my CuisinArt (it’s in a box at one of my friend’s houses until further notice). I might lug my Dutch oven back over the pond after I visit my family in the U.S. over Thanksgiving (it’s the end of September now). And we’ve managed to not complain about our drinking vessels. We've been sipping very inexpensive sparkling wine out of two Chimay glasses my beer-snob boyfriend tucked away in his carry-on bag.

I’ve always believed in teaching people to cook realistically. Whenever a friend or co-worker has asked me to teach them some basic recipes, I always begin by asking, “Tell me the kinds of things I might find in your cupboards,” and I come up with meals that they can make without stretching their boundaries too far from the start. It’s not until after they’ve gradually moved out of their comfort zone that I even tell them about the joys of cayenne pepper or sri racha.

Under these limitation I’m faced with now, in London, I feel most akin again to my new-to-cooking friends. The point of this book is to share the recipes I make while in England with these various constrictions. The recipes at the front of the book contain the fewest ingredients and are the hardest to mess up, while those at the back will come later in my stay here, when maybe I will have broken down and bought a jar of some spice I know I’ll never burn through in twelve months. And in between, I hope to share with you what it’s like, from a personal perspective, to think about what I’m willing and not willing to purchase, what I’m willing to improvise, and how much it all costs in both time and money.

Recipe for Potato Leek Soup
I confess that I was inspired to make this recipe in part because of Julie Powell’s book wherein she cooks all the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child in one year. A friend had given me a copy before I left the U.S., and I was reading it on the plane when I landed in Heathrow. When I arrived at my new flat (Boyfriend had arrived early and found an apartment for us), we had in the house only a few basic ingredients. I was not at all surprised that Boyfriend had stocked up on potatoes, one of the few decent staples of old school British cooking, and President butter, a brand imported from France that we used to buy religiously when we lived in San Francisco. But I was a little stunned to see two great big leeks in the vegetable crisper. He loves leeks, but he’s never once cooked with them, and I don’t think he quite knows how to either. I realized then that he bought them in anticipation of my arrival -- he wanted me to make something with leeks.

I guess it was just in the cards that I start in the same way Julie Powell started, and the same way Julia Child started, though I dare not call my recipe by any French name, as it’s more like potato and leek mash soup than anything so foreign sounding at potage parmentier.

Potato Leek Soup
2 leeks
1 tablespoon butter
4 potatoes the size of your fist
1 to 2 cups water
salt and pepper

cutting board, knife and a potato peeler if you have one (but the knife can also do the trick)
a sauce pan of at least medium size, or a stock pot
traditional wooden spoon (for stirring and mashing -- you can also use any large metal or plastic spoon alongside a potato masher or a ricer)

The first step is to prep the leeks.

If you bought your leeks from a small grocer or farmer’s market, they are probably covered in grit and dirt. If you got them from a large supermarket, they might be pretty clean. Give them a little rinse under some cold water, then set up your cutting board so it is free of all other food. It’s okay if you encounter more dirt in the next few steps, as you will rinse the leeks really well before you cook them. Trim the very bottom white part of the leeks where there may be some roots. Also trim off the very top dark green parts. The part of the leek you want to use is white and light green. The darker portions are tough and stringy, and you can include them if you like, but most people find the texture unpleasant.

Now cut the leek in half lengthwise. Take your time. Leeks are slippery buggers. Start at the darker end and slowly slide your knife down toward the white. Now set each half so the freshly cut flat side is down on the cutting board. This gives you good stability. Now, starting at the white end, cut crosswise strips so you get little half moon shapes. It doesn’t matter if they are paper thin or about 1/4 inch thick. They are going to cook down later, so don’t worry.

Now that the leeks are all cut up, it’s time to finish cleaning them. If you have a collander or “spaghetti strainer,” put the leeks in that and rinse them vigorously under cold water, sloshing them around with your hands until they seem clean. If you don’t have a collander, you can fill a big bowl with water and just submerge them and pull them out onto clean paper towels or a dish towel. If you don’t have a big bowl, you can fill the kitchen sink (clean it first!) with water and rinse them there.

Now the cooking begins.

Put your pot on a large burner on fairly low heat. Add a little nob of butter so that it melts slowly. If the butter sizzles or burns, the heat is too high. If you’re shy about using butter, you can actually just use olive oil at this stage. Once the butter is nearly melted, toss in the leeks. Let them cook on low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occassionally. They should do nothing more than soften and become slightly translucent.

Meanwhile, prep the potatoes.
Peel the potatoes with either a peeler or very carefully with your knife and cut them into medium sized chunks, about six pieces for each potato. As you peel and chop, you can put the potatoes in cold water to keep them from browning, but I never worry too much about that. It should only take you about 4 to 8 minutes to peel and chop them, and by the time you get to this point, the leeks should be pretty soft.

Add the potatoes to the pot, and immediately afterward, add about a cup or two of water -- just enough to cover the potatoes -- it might even be three or four cups of water. Don’t sweat it. Cover the pot and crank the heat to high. If some starchy water blows the top off the pot, it’s no big deal. Just pull the top off and let it continue cooking uncovered.

Let everything cook; leave it alone for at least 12 minutes. The goal is to get the potatoes to soften as much as you would for mashed potatoes. It’s impossible to over cook them, though, so don’t worry if you actually cook them for more like 25 minutes. It’s fine either way.

Turn the heat down to medium-low. Take a look at how much water is in the pot. If the leeks and potatoes are just swimming in it, drain them off a bit. You want to have a few inches of water at the bottom of the pot, but not much more than that otherwise the soup will not be flavorful. Using your wooden spoon (or a ricer or potato masher), mash up all the ingredients. You can do this off the heat too if you prefer. It may be chunky, it may look more like mashed potatoes -- depending on how you like your soup, you can add a few tablespoons of water, vegetable broth, milk, cream, or even sour cream now. Once you like what you see, add 1 or 2 teaspoon of salt and some black pepper. You’ll add more salt later, but start with just 1 or 2 teaspoons for now, just to get an idea of what 1 or 2 teaspoons of salt tastes like.

Continue to mash the soup and stir it with the wooden spoon, and now add another good nob of butter, maybe 2 teaspoons or so. The more butter, the better, unless you’re watching your diet, in which case 2 teaspoons is more than enough. Stir the butter through, taste for salt and pepper, and that’s it. Serve with some crusty bread or chives or chopped parsley.