A cool, surprising first course for Thanksgiving

by Terry B on November 14, 2007

Unexpected coldness adds an elegant surprise to Marion’s Sweet Potato Vichyssoise, our traditional Thanksgiving dinner first course.

Freshly returned from an amazing road trip along California’s Pacific Coast Highway, I had planned to regale you with tales of fabulous food and hairpin turns. That will have to wait ’til next week. I suddenly remembered I’d promised you Marion’s Sweet Potato Vichyssoise, a Thanksgiving tradition at our house, in time for that most food-centric of holidays. Marion will actually give you two recipes today—the Vichyssoise and the homemade chicken stock that makes it so good. For a little taste of California, check out my WTF post after the soup course. Oh. And if you’re looking for another non-traditional [except in our household] side dish for Thanksgiving, be sure to check out Marion’s delicious take on kasha from last year.

A bowl of this soup looks like a beautiful harvest moon glowing on your table. The original of this recipe appeared in The Four Seasons Cookbook, still one of my most beloved cookbooks of all time. Elegant in design, full of inspiring, demanding recipes and gorgeous photos, it foreshadowed our current era of high-concept coffee table cookbooks. I usually figure that if a cookbook gives us one recipe that lasts, then that cookbook is worth my while. The Four Seasons Cookbook gave me several that remain in our rotation even now, and I still turn to it from time to time to admire its lovely photos and, honestly, to gape at the now-vanished world of daffy culinary aspiration that it represents—especially the panoply of things crammed inside other things: Stuffed Legs of Baby Lamb en Brioche! Whole Trout in Souffle! Mousse of Ham in Whole Peaches! [I cannot think of another cookbook that comments, with a straight face, of a very busy dish that includes lobster and lobster sauce, “It will make a pleasantly spectacular addition to your repertoire of chafing-dish cookery.”] But even if time has not been kind to this book, I still love it, and still remember that once I, too, longed to make a Croquembouche Bruno.

That book’s version of Sweet Potato Vichyssoise was based on beef stock and also called for celery, onion, and loads of butter. This one is lighter in approach. If anything, this recipe is so simple that I’m almost embarrassed by it. The central thing about to know, though, is that you have to make it with homemade stock. With so few ingredients, each one has to stand up for itself, and that’s all there is to it. Store-bought canned “broth” or the liquid delivery system for salt and fat that comes in a box just won’t do. Below you’ll find my recipe for homemade chicken stock. But first, the Sweet Potato Vichyssoise, an elegant, delicious first course for your Thanksgiving dinner.

Sweet Potato Vichyssoise
6 to 8 first course servings

6 cups of homemade chicken stock [see recipe below]
2 pounds of sweet potatoes
1 cup cream or half and half
Fresh chives, cut fine, or green scallion tops, cut very fine

Peel the sweet potatoes and cut them into small pieces.

Heat the chicken stock. When it is simmering, add the sweet potatoes, return the liquid to a simmer, and cook until the sweet potatoes are very soft. At this point, salt the soup carefully to taste. [See Kitchen Notes.]

Cool the soup. You may decant it in a bowl if you wish, or move the pot into the refrigerator, but it is essential to cool the soup thoroughly at this point. Once it is well cooled [see Kitchen Notes], process it in a blender or food processor until it is uniformly smooth and rather thick. Work in batches if you need to.

Once the soup is entirely puréed, pour it into a large container, cover and refrigerate until you are ready to serve it. You can make it up to a day ahead. At the point when you are about to serve the soup, stir in the cream.

Ladle the cold soup into individual bowls. Choose a bowl that will show off the pretty pale-coral color of the soup. As you see from the photo, we use pink Manhattan glass bowls. Simple white ones or clear glass bowls would be beautiful too. Garnish with the chives or scallions, and serve.

Now here’s the homemade chicken stock, the key to the success of the vichyssoise.

Homemade Chicken Stock
Makes about 20 cups of stock—you can freeze what you don’t use right away

12 pounds chicken pieces
3/4 – 1 pound carrots, scraped, topped, and cut into big chunks
2 medium onions, each peeled and stuck with two or three cloves
2 parsnips (about 6 to 8 ounces total), scraped, the top cut off
and discarded, and cut into chunks
8 or 10 whole peppercorns

To prepare the chicken, first rinse it well under hot water. Then cut off and discard as much fat as you feel like bothering with. Put the chicken in a 16-quart pot.

Add the carrots, onions, whole peppercorns and parsnip. Fill with cold water to cover everything amply. Do not add salt at any point!

Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmering. Skim off the foam and discard it.

Simmer gently until the chicken is beyond useful–—it should be falling off the bones. Taste it to be sure it is chickeny enough. The flavor should assert itself even without salt [which you have not added, yes?]. Turn off the heat. Remove all the solids from the stock–—I set a colander over a big bowl or over a pot and drop the solids into the colander. Press down on the solids with the back of a big, heavy spoon. Then discard the solids. Anything that has drained into the pot below should be added back to the stockpot.

At this point, when the stock has been off heat for a little while, you can separate the fat if you wish–—I like the OXO Good Grips Fat Separator for handling this work when the liquid is still hot [in fact, it is probably the only Good Grips product I do like]. Or you can ladle the still-fatty stock into individual storage containers. Cover them, cool in the refrigerator; then, when the stock has cooled, if you need to hold the stock over for a few weeks, move the containers into the freezer. It is easier to scrape off the fat during the thawing process than to separate it from the hot stock.

Kitchen Notes

Salt the soup when it is still warm. It’s very difficult to accurately salt cold soup. If you wait until it is cold, you will probably salt it too much.

Conversely, process this soup when it is cool. If you purée it when it is still warm, it will have a grainy texture.

Also this week in Blue Kitchen

Seeing the redwood forest for the trees. Vicarious thrills and breathtaking majesty, at WTF? Random food for thought.

Gypsy jazz, well done then and now—complete with YouTube clips—at What’s on the Kitchen Boombox?


{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Lydia November 14, 2007 at 12:04 pm

Wow — never ever thought about making this soup with sweet potatoes! What a wonderful idea.

Katerina November 14, 2007 at 4:06 pm

Looks good, I love potato and leek soup although I can never wait for it to cool which is why I don’t usually call it vichyssoise. Looks great!

Susan from Food Blogga November 15, 2007 at 1:17 am

Glad to see you made it back safely. And what a delicious photo.

Anh November 15, 2007 at 5:05 am

Very interesting! I never think of making Sweet Potato Vichyssoise!

Melinda November 15, 2007 at 6:33 am

I won the vanilla beans with your garam masala oatmeal cookies on Jaden’s Steamy Kitchen blog. We’re winners not losers, for a change! I’ll let you know when I make them up and post about them.

The soup does sound good. Doing something different during Thanksgiving is a good idea. It wakes up all the old folks asleep at the table.

Terry B November 15, 2007 at 3:58 pm

Lydia and Anh—The sweet potatoes add a nice sweet touch very much in keeping with fall harvest flavors. Think cider, apples, pumpkin pie…

Katerina—This one’s worth the wait [and I can brag on it because it’s not my recipe!].

Susan—Thanks! We had an absolutely amazing time. And for all the wonderful things we saw, California friends are telling us we barely scratched the surface. We’ll be back.

Melinda—Glad to know the garam masala oatmeal raisin cookies were winners for you! I’m sure you added your own interesting twist—I look forward to seeing what you did. You’re right about doing something different at Thanksgiving. As much as it’s about tradition, nice little twists keep it interesting. Last Thanksgiving, we posted another traditional side in our household, kasha, that might add a fresh touch to your table.

marie November 16, 2007 at 12:27 pm

Your soup looks wonderful, and I love that bowl!!! p.s. I’m a fellow Chicago foodie!

Terry B November 16, 2007 at 3:41 pm

Thanks, Marie, and welcome to Blue Kitchen! A quick look at your blog tells me I’ll have to go back and check it out often.

As Marion said, the bowl is Manhattan. A number of companies produced this elegant glass dinnerware—most of it clear glass—from the late 1930s to the early ’40s. We’ve collected a fair amount of it over the years, mostly at flea markets. Ironically, our collection of this dinnerware with its urbane name and pedigree began with three plates I picked up at a junk shop in the tiny southeast Missouri town of Doe Run.

Lena November 16, 2007 at 9:52 pm

I love this soup. I have embarrassed myself over this soup. I am a fool for this soup and my mouth goes into instant drool alert when I think about this soup. This soup is some of the best stuff ever made in the history of soup making. See? I again embarrass myself over this soup.

Terry B November 16, 2007 at 10:08 pm

I’ve been there. She has.

Mary Coleman November 17, 2007 at 1:36 am

What a wonderful take on vichyssoise! We love cold soups in this house and this will be a welcome addition to our recipe collection.
Great website too!

Mimi November 24, 2007 at 2:24 pm

I would dearly love to make something like this, but I am not sure how it would go over at my house. I think my husband would try it, just to please me, but I am not certain he woould totally embrace it. I get frustrated sometimes, living here in the land of fried food and meat-and-potatoes cooking…

K November 27, 2007 at 4:13 pm

This sounds fantastic! I missed the recipe in time for Thanksgiving, but I can’t wait to try it out soon.

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