The name is the fanciest thing about this summertime soup, and you don’t even say it the fanciest way. Vee-she-swah, the pronunciation that’s most divorced from actual letters — usually the way to go when it comes to French — is, in this case, incorrect. It’s vee-she-swaazz, an even more hilarious hey-I’m-wearing-a-beret mouthful. After I said it recently, a friend of mine pointedly went with the –swah, clearly to kindly demonstrate the error of my ways. I just let her do it. Life’s too short for pronunciation-shaming, and summer’s way too short. Plus it’s only soup.
The French “vichyssoise” also sounds approximately 17 times better than “cold potato-leek soup,” and that is apt, for cold potato-leek soup is approximately 17 times better than it sounds. But even its Frenchiness is a little bit fudged — in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Julia Child rather tersely points out, “This is an American invention.” A Talk of the Town profile from The New Yorker, vintage 1950, details that vichyssoise was the idea of Louis Diat, “the celebrated chef” of the Ritz. While he himself was French (and vividly so, “a mustached man of 65 with curly gray hair and large, black, bushy eyebrows”), he originated the soup on the hotel’s New York City premises in 1917. Having recalled that in his childhood summers, he and his brother would pour cold milk into the potato-leek soup his mother and grandmother made, and how very good the result was, he decided to make the patrons of the Ritz such a French country treat. The ritzy types loved vichyssoise so much that in 1923, Diat yielded to their demands to keep it on-menu not just during New York’s sweltering season, but throughout the year. Diat grew up near Vichy — hence, the name.
The New Yorker notes that vichyssoise, in its heyday, was a soup for the stars. Steel magnate Charles M. Schwab “ordered it the first day it was on the menu, and asked for a second helping.” President Franklin Roosevelt’s mother, who’d also apparently deeply enjoyed vichyssoise at the Ritz, “once called me up at 5 in the afternoon and asked me to send eight portions to her house,” Diat told The New Yorker. He sent her two quarts and the recipe.
Mrs. Roosevelt’s cook must’ve been relieved, for vichyssoise is ridiculously easy to make. With a minimum of ingredients and an extremely straightforward preparation process, it makes gazpacho (which, let’s face it, is sort of like eating a bowlful of salsa) look like a foray into molecular gastronomy. You can make it more complicated. Diat’s recipe calls for onion in addition to the leeks, while both he and Child insist that you shove the soup through a sieve in addition to blending it, to achieve ultimate smoothness. With all due respect, the delicate allium of the leeks should be appreciated without any pushy cousin’s company, and the eating-interest is boosted, in my humble opinion, by leaving some smaller bits of potato slice intact. A 1957 New York Times version calls for the addition of tomato juice, a level of introduced acidity that seems, frankly, bizarre — the entire point of this soup is simple, cool creaminess. (The Times suggests serving it alongside, among other things, the bizarrely named Epigram of Lamb.) Child’s recipe is also confoundingly butter-free, when that richness seems key, and the smell of the leeks cooking in it is just heavenly.
Some would ominously warn you that with soup this simple, your ingredients have nowhere to hide, so you best use homemade stock and et cetera. I’m here to tell you that it is probably impossible to make bad vichyssoise, and also, who wants to make stock in the summertime? Do spring for organic stuff, if you can — especially the cream. This recipe calls for less of that than others do but, I think, still attains pure luxury. (I love cream with all my heart and was very surprised to find more than a half-cup overrich in this instance, especially in the heat.)
Make your vichyssoise when the kitchen’s relatively cool, after sundown or in the morning. You will thank yourself later in the day — a cup or a small bowl is both perfectly cooling and gently filling when it’s really too hot to eat. Vichyssoise plus a crab or shrimp salad and a glass of crisp French white wine, maybe picpoul — this is what a summer lunch or supper wants to be. If you have vichyssoise leftovers, you will find yourself going to the fridge late at night for a cool spoonful.
You will have a lot of leftover leek here! If you aren’t insistent on pure whiteness with your vichyssoise (and, um, why would you be?), you can absolutely make a second batch using the nice light-green part of the leeks. Leek tops, chef Jerry Traunfeld advises, “stir-fry beautifully,” while chef Tamara Murphy says she always uses the tops, charring them with “onion, poblano, whole scallion, whole jalapeños; chop it up, add chopped garlic, cilantro, parsley leaves, mint and lime. Also known as salsa verde — my version, anyway.” Jill Lightner, author of the forthcoming “Scraps, Peels, and Stems,” suggests, “You can chop them and use some olive oil and salt and roast on high heat, making crispy little oniony chips! Or slice, sauté briefly to soften, then roast meat/fish on top. Or, if you want fancy, shred and fry for a crispy little garnish for soup/salad/pasta.” You could also make a leek-based stock and make your next vichyssoise even leekier.
3 tablespoons butter
4 large leeks, white part only, thinly sliced (about 2 cups)
3 cups potato, peeled and thinly sliced (about 3 medium potatoes — a mandoline is your friend for fast slicing)
1 quart (4 cups/32 oz.) chicken stock (or vegetable, for vegetarian)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper — or black pepper, if you don’t mind speckled soup
A few tablespoons of chives, finely chopped (plus chive flowers for extra credit)
1. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add the sliced leeks, sprinkle with a little salt and cook for about 4 to 5 minutes, stirring once a minute or so, just to soften; you don’t want them to brown.
2. Add the sliced potato and chicken (or vegetable) stock, stir to combine and bring just barely to a boil; reduce heat, and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring approximately every 15 minutes.
3. Blend — an immersion blender is easiest, but a regular one will do (be careful — hot!) — until as smooth as you like (with all due respect to Julia Child, leaving some smaller bits of whole potato is nice).
4. Stir in the cream, salt and white pepper, and chill until cold.
5. Top each bowl with chopped chives (and bits of chive flowers, if you have them).
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