The summer before my senior year in high school, I had the privilege of living with a French family for three weeks. It was a wonderful experience, and I learned so much that I was dreaming en Francais by time we said our goodbyes. Their home was in Saint Andre des Eaux, a quaint rural town outside Saint Nazaire, a west coast city with a harbor that opened up to the Atlantic Ocean.
The town was straight from my French book, complete with une boulangerie, un boucherie, and other assorted speciality shops. Every night after dinner, I would take advantage of the late sunset and walk a mile along cow pasture-lined country roads with Indigo Girls "Closer to Fine" blasting through the headphones of my Sony walkman (RIP, Sony walkman!) to La Briere, a giant marsh with interconnecting narrow waterways that people would paddle around by boat to look at the native flora and fauna.
I hit it off with my French sister, and my French parents couldn't have been nicer. Dad often wanted to practice his English while Mom didn't speak a word of it. But I considered myself incredibly lucky because every night she would ask me what I wanted for dinner in contrast to some of my American friends, who regaled me with horror stories of the meals that they were forced to eat.
I ate chicken. Every. Single. Night. Of course now I kick myself for blowing such a unique opportunity to try authentic French cooking and learn more about local food. But I was still a very picky eater at the time and clearly did not try to break out of my comfort zone.
There was one recipe that she made that I couldn't get enough of--potage. This thick vegetable soup included pureed potatoes, carrots, onions, leeks, and some other flavorful ingredients that for the life of me, I was never able to replicate. Although I left France with her handwritten recipe tucked in my bag, and my (real) mom and I tried to make it many times, potage never, ever tasted the same again. As the years passed, the ink on that paper literally faded away, and no record exists any more of that recipe.
My mom reminded me of potage the other night when I asked her why she included "Mom's Potato, Fennel, and Leek Soup" in the family recipe book that my sister compiled as a gift for my wedding. Mom had a string of reasons ... that it was getting on to winter and she wanted to include a soup ... that she decided to submit a recipe for every course ... that she had just clipped this recipe from the newspaper ... and then as an afterthought, that it reminded her of potage.
While I hadn't thought about potage in years and our disappointing failure in trying to recreate the recipe, I do love to make soup now. In fact our most used wedding gift so far is a 12-quart soup pot, which is great to use (but a giant PITA to clean).
So it works that I had unwittingly chosen this as the first recipe to make from the family cookbook when I decided to blog my way through it. While this recipe is no potage, it's easy to make and turns out a nice hearty soup on a cold winter's night.
Mom's Potato, Fennel and Leek Soup
2 leeks, light green and white parts only, thinly sliced
2 T unsalted butter
1 T olive oil
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1/2 bulb fresh fennel, trimmed and chopped (about 3/4 cup)
3 baking potatoes, about 1 1/2 pounds, peeled and cut into chunks
1/2 t dried thyme
2 T chopped parsley
1 bay leaf
4 1/2 cups chicken broth
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
In a soup kettle, cook the leeks slowly in the butter and oil for 5 minutes. Add the carrot and fennel; cook 5 more minutes. Stir in the potato chunks, thyme, parsley and bay leaf. Add the broth, bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 25-30 minutes, or until the potatoes are completely tender. Discard the bay leaf. Crush about a third of the veggies with a potato masher (we skipped this step and opted for chunky veggies). Season with salt and pepper. Serve piping hot.