julia child, mastering the art of french cooking, julie powell, french cuisine

A Bowl of Simplicity


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“As far as I know, the only evidence supporting the theory that Julia Child first made Potage Parmentier during a bad bout of ennui is her own recipe for it. She writes that Potage Parmentier…’smells good, tastes good, and is simplicity itself to make.’ It is the first recipe in the first book she ever wrote. She concedes that you can add carrots or broccoli or green beans if you want, but that seems beside the point, if what you’re looking for is simplicity itself.” – Julie Powell


You know what’s fun? Learning! I’m learning to cook. You’re learning from my mistakes. And now, we can both learn a fun story about…potatoes! So gather round, snuggle up with your favorite blankie and settle in for the telling of the history of Potage Parmentier (French potato and leek soup).

When Europeans first came upon the potato, they thought it was poisonous, like many of its nightshade and tomato plant cousins. Because of this unfounded accusation, potatoes weren’t popular and spent the majority of junior high sitting in the back of the classroom trying to go unnoticed with their noses buried in their books. Oh, wait. We were talking about potatoes. Moving right along…

Auguste Parmentier

In 1784, Count Rumford was experiencing some budget issues at the local workhouse, a place where people who were unable to support themselves could go to live and work. Looking for ways to save money, he began using cheap potatoes in place of expensive barley in the gruel served to the inmates. He had to be sneaky, though, because he feared if they found out he was using potatoes, they wouldn’t eat it. (That rascal!)

So how did potatoes ever get over their bad reputation? In 1756, during the Seven Years War, a French army officer named Parmentier was taken prisoner in Hamburg, Germany. While there, his prison diet consisted of…yep, you guessed it!…potatoes. And what’s more, he found that he liked them! (Ah, things are looking up for our little spuds.) Once released, he managed to introduce them to the French court, where Marie Antoinette became a fan. Now, you must understand that when it came to trends, the queen pretty much set the standard for what everyone else did. So the potato finally caught its big break and became fashionable, thus entering the French cuisine and eventually, that of the rest of the world. And this, boys and girls, is where Potage Parmentier gets its name. And our taste buds lived happily ever after. The End.

Wasn’t that a great story? I especially like the part where the potato gets to meet the queen – how exciting! But do you know what’s even more exciting? That Julia Child gave us the recipe to a delicious Potage Parmentier in MtAoFC – and I made it last night in my very own kitchen.

Potage Parmentier simmering on the stove.

The recipe consists of a whopping five – yes, FIVE – ingredients: water, potatoes, leeks, salt and whipping cream. This is crazy easy, I tell you! Begin by peeling and dicing ½ lb. of potatoes and thinly slicing ½ lb. of leeks. Now, I have never seen a leek before, and never really understood what it was. But the moment I started slicing it, I knew it was a member of the onion family – whoooeee, those babies are odoriferous! Put those two items in a pot of 2 quarts of water and simmer partially covered for about 45 minutes. (Here’s where I made my one and only mistake during this process…apparently I put in too much water, because the consistency of the soup came out a little thin in the end. Oh, well.)

When time is up and the vegetables are tender, take a fork and mash them in the pot. I recommend wearing an oven mitt, because the steam coming out of that pot is fierce and there’s no need to give your arm a facial or run the risk of scalding your fingertips as hot water splashes up while you mash. When I took the pot off the heat just before this step, I couldn’t help noticing that this didn’t look much like soup – more like cooked vegetables in a pot of water. But once I started mashing, the overall consistency began to thicken and seemed much more recognizable (despite the fact that I used too much water). Put the pot back on the heat, bring it just to simmering, then remove and add about 4 tablespoons of whipping cream. Once mixed in, this will also thicken the consistency a bit. Add some seasoning as needed, pour into bowls, top with a little bit of parsley and serve.

Potage Parmentier - Delish!

Whatever concerns I had about my version being too watery disappeared when I tasted the first spoonful. The potatoes and leeks worked great together, making this a perfect comfort food. Light yet satisfying, this would be ideal for a cold winter’s night by the fire or a dreary rainy day curled up on the sofa with a good book. The recipe says you can add other ingredients, like carrots and broccoli, but part of the charm of this recipe is its simplicity. Plain ingredients, easy steps, traditional cooking – good home cooking for home town folks. Why mess with perfection?

Even after dividing the recipe in half and going back for seconds, we still have a good amount of leftovers in the fridge…leftovers that I hope will thicken up when reheated. Either way, these extras might be just the ticket for a quick lunch over the weekend in between shopping for more groceries as we begin to tackle our second week of French cooking.

Have I mentioned that I love potatoes?

10 recipes down – 514 to go!
– Jessica

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