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The Soup I Wish I Could Have Served My Grandmother

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This article is brought to you by our friends at Electrolux as part of an ongoing series focusing on seasonal ingredients. Today, leeks shine in a creamy (and presidential!) vichyssoise.

The last time I visited my grandmother was about five months before she passed away. It was last April, her 86th birthday; in North Carolina, the rose bushes were blooming a little early. I made Easter dinner—it was the first time I'd ever cooked for her. We rifled through her cookbooks together that weekend, flagging ones I wanted to keep in the family, and yet, not really addressing why we were doing this (but it was obvious, of course). And that's when I happened upon the bright yellow, tattered cover of The President's Own White House Cookbook from 1968.

Photo by James Ransom

At first, I found it tongue-in-cheek funny, outlandish even, giggling as I flipped through pages that included Martin Van Buren's Cheese Cake, John F. Kennedy's Iced Tomato Soup, Andrew Jackson's Turkey Hash, or Franklin D. Roosevelt's Terrapin Stew. But then, I found myself actually enthralled in the stories that accompanied the recipes, each somehow sparkling, probably because of their presidential association. I decided I'd keep it.

Photo by James Ransom

I took it with me when we left a few days later and, after pawing through it a few times over, stopped on a leek vichyssoise. Leeks are one of my favorite vegetables; I love how comically oversized they look, stuck in between a scallion and a proper onion, and how gentle and sweet they become once cooked.

Even just saying the word vichyssoise feels elegant, but this humble soup is as simple as can be. It's something my grandmother would make, despite its fancy name, because it's such a classic, and it's French. (One thing we always had in common was our love of traveling abroad). And the fact is, I've never made a proper one and wanted to try. If this is good enough for Presidents, and for Lu Weiss, it would be good enough for me.

Photo by James Ransom

Our relationship was not like most granddaughters and grandmothers, all love and hugs and cooing. I never felt particularly warm and fuzzy feelings toward her—she wasn't that kind of lady. Lu grew up on a farm in Minnesota and then raised five raucous boys, including my father. It was a life bursting at the seams with stories like dinnertime fork-to-hand stabbing, trikes through glass doors, and splinters, lots of splinters.

Now, you might be thinking: What the heck does all of this have to do with vichyssoise? Lu was not an outlandish woman. She did not cook wildly difficult recipes—but she did cook well, every day. Cooking was something she was known for, her pies and cakes, Thanksgiving dinners and roasts. Her cookbook collection was extensive, but did not include volumes I thought particularly popular—there were regional books from Minnesota, or Pennsylvania, and books of dishes from the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. They were all just a little weird by contemporary standards, just like The President's Own White House Cookbook.

Photo by James Ransom

More: Have more leeks than you know what do with? Head straight here.

So I made the vichyssoise the way I thought Lu would have made it, without all the pomp and circumstance. The original recipe called for chicken stock and to be served cold, but I wanted something vegetarian and warming for the height of winter. So I went with vegetable stock and skipped chilling the soup, opting to ladle it into bowls straight off the stove. The onions, leeks, and potatoes play nicely with the light spice—it's actually sort of surprising how much of the vegetables you taste through the milk and cream. And since this is served hot instead of cold, I went for a dollop of sour cream (instead of a CUP) along with the chives, so you can control the hot to cold ratio and extra creaminess.

I never got to ask my grandmother if she had made anything from this cookbook, let alone this recipe, but I like to imagine she'd say: "Oh, I know the soup you are talking about. I've made it dozens of times." And then she'd trail on about growing the leeks, or potatoes, herself as a kid, and maybe veer into the kind of dishes she'd serve alongside it, and so on. In her last year, food became our lifeline, the one thing we knew about the other that made sense—we always knew we could go back to the topic if things got awkward, or quiet. And I'm thankful for that now, even though it took almost 30 years to figure out.

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Leek Vichyssoise

Fc9bc41a 56a6 4a99 9c78 58f26423f494  screen shot 2015 07 24 at 12.47.23 pm Samantha Weiss Hills

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Makes 2 1/2 quarts
  • 4 leeks, sliced paper thin
  • 1 medium onion, sliced paper thin
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 4 large red potatoes
  • 4 cups vegetable stock
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 cups cream
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • sour cream and chopped chives, for garnish

This article was brought to you by Electrolux, Food52's test kitchen partner. Electrolux is all about great taste and the appliances to help you make beautiful meals in your own kitchen. Learn more here.