Chilled soup and a cool borrowed memory: Watercress Vichyssoise

by Terry B on August 29, 2007

Creamy and unexpectedly chilled, watercress vichyssoise makes a cool first course for the last hot days of summer—or paired with a crusty bread, a satisfying light lunch. Recipe below.

How has this happened? Summer is almost gone, and we haven’t gotten around to making any cold soups. No gazpacho. None of Marion’s delicious attempts at recreating the cold cucumber bisque we used to get at Café Balaban in St. Louis—she never matches our fading memories of it [it’s been years since we’ve had it or they’ve even served it], but she always creates something summery and fresh. So when I saw a simple, authentic sounding recipe for vichyssoise over at Katie’s Thyme for Cooking, I had to give it a try.

One reason the idea of vichyssoise appealed to me, I have to admit, was the opening of Anthony Bourdain’s highly entertaining book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. He talks about his very first realization that food was more than mere fuel. Even though I read it back when it first came out in 2000, this passage stays with me:

My first indication that food was something other than a substance one stuffed in one’s face when hungry—like filling up at a gas station—came after fourth grade in elementary school. It was on a family vacation to Europe, on the Queen Mary, in the cabin-class dining room. There’s a picture somewhere: my mother in her Jackie O sunglasses, my younger brother and I in our painfully cute cruisewear, boarding the big Cunard ocean liner, all of us excited about our first transatlantic voyage, our first trip to my father’s ancestral homeland, France.

It was the soup.

It was cold.

As Bourdain explains, it was something of a discovery for someone whose entire experience with soup to this point had consisted of Campbell’s. Here’s how he describes that first taste of vichyssoise:

I remember everything about the experience: the way our waiter ladled it from a silver tureen into my bowl; the crunch of tiny chopped chives he spooned on as a garnish; the rich, creamy taste of leek and potato; the pleasurable shock, the surprise that it was cold.

Bourdain realizes that vichyssoise has become an old warhorse of a menu selection, but says the very name “still has a magical ring to it.” Good enough for me. I had to make some.

But first, I did a little reading. Turns out this most French-sounding soup was created in New York in 1917. By a Frenchman, though—Louis Diat, head chef at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. He based it on a warm potato and leek soup, a classic French soup that he made from a recipe his mother had given him. Julia Child’s version of this traditional Potage Parmentier in Mastering the Art of French Cooking is simplicity itself. Of course, much of French cooking is deceptively, elegantly simple.

One variation on this basic soup includes watercress. The slightly peppery crisp taste of this herb sounded like it would the perfect addition to this creamy, cold soup.

The recipe below came together from reading several recipes. The one common thread seemed to be more or less equal amounts of leeks and potatoes, so I started there.

Watercress Vichyssoise
4 to 6 first-course servings [see Kitchen Notes]

3 cups chopped leeks [about 2 leeks, the white and pale green parts only]
1 tablespoon butter
3 cups peeled, chopped potatoes [3 to 4 medium]
1-1/2 cups low sodium chicken broth [see Kitchen Notes]
4 cups roughly chopped watercress [about 1 large bunch—see Kitchen Notes]
1-1/3 cups half & half
additional sprigs of watercress for garnish, optional
salt, to taste

Clean and prepare leeks. Slice off root end and most of the green tops. Slice leeks in half lengthwise. Rinse under running water, fanning layers to wash out any trapped grit. Slice crosswise in 3/4-inch pieces.

Peel and chop potatoes into fairly small chunks. I used Yukon Gold because we like the flavor.

Heat a large, deep saucepan over medium-low flame. Melt butter in pan and add leeks. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring frequently—you want to sweat the leeks, not brown them.

Add potatoes and broth, plus just enough water to cover the potatoes—I added almost a cup. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer the mixture uncovered until potatoes are almost tender, 15 minutes or so. Stir in chopped watercress and cook an additional 5 minutes. Add a little water if necessary to cover—I added another 1/4 cup. But the point is to keep the mixture thick, so the final soup will be thick and creamy. Remove from heat. After mixture cools slightly, place in refrigerator and chill completely, at least a few hours. Can be made a day in advance up to this point.

Purée chilled mixture completely in blender or food processor in two batches and transfer to a large bowl. Stir in half & half and add salt to taste. Ladle out individual servings and garnish with watercress sprigs, if desired. Serve immediately.

Kitchen Notes

Our planned Sunday dinner fell through, so I divided the puréed mixture [without half & half] into two batches. I mixed half of the half & half into one batch, and it became two generous servings for us. The other batch will meet just such a fate in a day or two.

Going vegetarian. It’s easy to make this vegetarian. Just replace the chicken broth with more water and salt. That’s how the Julia Child recipe for Potage Parmentier is made. I wouldn’t substitute vegetable broth because that brings a lot of other flavors to the party, I think.

Watercress. Because you purée the soup, you can use stems and all. Just rinse the watercress beforehand. Watercress is a sometimes overlooked herb—undeservedly so. For that very reason, I’m including this post in Weekend Herb Blogging. It’s being hosted this week by its creator, Kalyn over at Kalyn’s Kitchen. Be sure to check out her complete round-up on Monday, September 3.

And by the way, it’s pronounced vee shee SWAHZ. Louis Diat apparently named it Creme Vichyssoise Glacee, or Chilled Cream Vichyssoise, in honor of the town Vichy, where he was born.

Also this week in Blue Kitchen

Eating with tubas. Delightful dining in a restaurant that doubles as a tuba museum, at WTF? Random food for thought.

On the road again. No, not with Willie Nelson—it’s the Talking Heads serving up great road trip tunes, at What’s on the kitchen boombox?


{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Kalyn August 29, 2007 at 3:31 am

I love watercress so this would probably be a hit with me. Can you believe I’ve never tasted Vichyssoise? I’m seriously deprived here in Utah.

Christina August 29, 2007 at 4:13 am

Beautiful recipe!

A comment on Bourdain . . . I teach AP English Language and Composition and my students are required to read 1000 pages of nonfiction independent reading. Several of my students discovered Kitchen Confidential last year and could not put it down. The rhetorical analyses they completed on the text were amazing!

Lydia August 29, 2007 at 10:48 am

I haven’t made a proper vichyssoise in ages — I tend to make a straight leek-and-potato soup, which I eat without the cream when I have it hot, and I add a touch of milk to make it cold (a mock vichyssoise, I guess). Nice to be reminded of the real thing!

Rose August 29, 2007 at 12:56 pm

For some reason, I always thought that vichyssoise is a potato leek and zucchini soup. I have never had cold soups before. I am scared of cold soups. Won’t the soup thicken a bit if it goes back to the fridge? And is it okay not to cook the cream in the half and half?

Terry B August 29, 2007 at 2:16 pm

Kalyn—And it’s so nice and simple! Give it a try.

Christina—I first discovered his writing in the New Yorker. It was an essay describing a typical day in his life as Executive Chef at Les Halles in Manhattan [a lovely restaurant, by the way]. It’s also a chapter of this book. This unflinching look into the long hours and grueling pace of a restaurant kitchen both fascinated me and disabused me of any notions that I would make it in that world. At the same time it also gave me a real appreciation of its addictive appeal.

Lydia—Even using half & half instead of cream is a little less than proper. But it does give it some of the creaminess of the original with considerably less fat.

Rose—Cold soups are both safe and refreshing. Here in the U.S., dairy products must be pasteurized, so you don’t have to cook the cream. And yes, refrigeration does thicken this soup, but you want it thick and creamy.

Noah Oliphant August 29, 2007 at 3:32 pm

Cold soup is my favorite in summer. Can’t get enough of it.

Wonderful pictures!

irishsof August 29, 2007 at 6:29 pm

I have a great memory of a lunch in Budapest, where they served a cold fruit soup. Apparently it was a staple there, but I have been unable to re-create it. Cold soups really are a wonderful summer diversion on the table.

Patricia Scarpin August 29, 2007 at 6:56 pm

I haven’t entered the world of cold soups yet, Terry, and I can tell this would be a wonderful way to start!
I love how you presented the soup, the dish looks beautiful.

Katiez August 29, 2007 at 7:28 pm

Ooooh, I like the addition of watercress! And it makes such a pretty presentation….. Well done, and all that!

Elle August 29, 2007 at 8:05 pm

I love cold soup and I love A. Bourdain.

Terry B August 29, 2007 at 9:00 pm

Noah and irishsof—Welcome to Blue Kitchen! Irishsof, that soups sounds intriguing. Even if you never duplicate it, I’m sure you’ll come up with interesting variations.

Patricia—Spring is just around the corner for you. A perfect time to explore cold soups. I bet you would go crazy for a decent gazpacho. And thanks—I have to admit, this is one of my favorite photos so far for Blue Kitchen. I think the high-key lightness of it perfectly matches the soup’s light creaminess.

Katie—Thanks! And thanks for inspiring me to make it with your post.

Anali August 30, 2007 at 3:36 pm

What a perfect picture! The soup looks so nice and creamy and I love the lace napkin and the silver spoon. It all looks so clean and polished!

Sharona May August 30, 2007 at 10:12 pm

Your soup looks wonderful. I just made cucumber soup the other day!

It is great right now for these hot days.

Kirsten August 31, 2007 at 1:14 am

Lovely soup – and photo! What a great idea to use watercress – I am sure it tasted great.

I am not a fan of cold soup – for some reason as hard as I try, I just can’t dig it. One exception is gazpacho – it reminds me of a bloody mary and somehow that justifies the coldness. Who knows what my issue is. :)

But when we made vichyssoise in French cooking class, we didn’t have time to chill it and taste it during class, so we ate it warm and it was SO delicious that maybe someday I will like it cold.

Terry B August 31, 2007 at 2:11 am

Anali—Thanks! That’s what I was going for.

Sharona May—I looked at the cucumber soup recipe on your blog. Sounds refreshing and delicious. And I like the use of plain yogurt—a nice not-fattening way to add creaminess.

KIrsten—Myself, I’m looking forward to trying a warm version this fall, as Julia Child prepared it. Will probably still add the watercress, though.

Mimi August 31, 2007 at 2:47 am

One of my most embarrassing moments was mistaking vichyssoise for salad dressing at the Memorial Union cafeteria at UW-Madison. It made a great dressing though!

Terry B August 31, 2007 at 3:12 am

Mimi—How funny! A friend of mine once mistook tartar sauce for thousand Island dressing. It did not make a great dressing.

Chef Chip September 2, 2007 at 2:49 am

Wow! That soup seriously makes me want to swim in it! You definitely accomplished “cool & refreshing” with your photo.

Coffee & Vanilla September 3, 2007 at 7:00 pm

Very interesting entry! I never tried to cook watercress yet.

Greetings, Margot

Erin September 3, 2007 at 7:45 pm

My husband adores vichyssoise and I love a good gazpacho, but like you the summer passed me by before I could crank one out. And it was such an incredible summer in chicago, a chilled soup would have really fit the bill! From one Chicagoan to another, I wanted to say I really love your site and look forward to reading more.

Carolyn September 4, 2007 at 5:53 pm

Aha! I do have something to add — about borrowing salad dressings. My favorite is cottage cheese atop a green salad. One needs no further dressing. It’s cold and creamy.

Linda, The Village Vegetable September 6, 2007 at 1:29 pm

I adore Anthony Bourdain and LOVED that book. A little too anti-vegetarian for most veggies I guess but I appreciate a real love of good food and culture. I wish I had his job frankly.

And this soup looks amazing! Can’t wait to try it.

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