Potage Crécy: French for “It’s cold outside—you need some creamy carrot soup”

by Terry B on January 28, 2009

A handful of basic ingredients—carrots, potatoes, leeks, stock, fresh thyme and cream—proves once again that the French are masters of sublime simplicity, in this colorful, subtle soup. Recipe below.

The thing that keeps me coming back to French food is its perfect simplicity. And yes, classic French cuisine is littered with plenty of complex creations, all wonderful, to be sure. But what really wows me is how they can take a half dozen or so ordinary ingredients and in a few simple steps make something perfect.

The French get food. They celebrate it. Much as their wines are named for the regions where the grapes are grown, many French dishes are named for their places of origin. According to Williams-Sonoma Collection: French, a gem of a cookbook, Crécy-en-Ponthieu in northern France is known for producing some of the country’s best carrots. Hence, the name for this creamy soup. [According to other sources, the town is even better known for a crucial battle in the Hundred Years' War in 1346, a battle that did not end well for the French.] If I have to choose between dusty history and this subtle, satisfying potage, give me the soup, please.

A soup by any other name. Depending on who’s doing the counting, the French have either three or four distinct categories of soups. At one end of the scale is consommé, a clear broth that may or may not contain garnishes. At the opposite end is soupe, a “thick, hearty mélange with chunks of food,” according to epicurious.com. Potage falls somewhere in the middle, a thick, creamy soup that is often puréed. The Williams-Sonoma cookbook here calls out another category, bisque, a smooth, velvety soup most often made with lobster or shellfish and cream.

mastering-french-cooking2One notable potage is even simpler than the one I’ve made this week—Julia Child’s potage parmentier, or leek and potato soup as it is simply called in her classic cookbook, Mastering The Art of French Cooking. Its ingredients are water, potatoes, leeks, butter, cream, and salt. Not even chicken stock. Whatever else she served, her husband’s meal began with this simple soup every night.

Potage Crécy [poh-TAHZH creh-SEE] is nearly as elegantly austere and every bit as soul satisfyingly delicious. Even though carrots star in this dish, they don’t dominate. No single ingredient does—not the chicken stock, the potatoes, the leeks, cream or even the fresh thyme. Instead, they all work together to create something better and more delicately flavored than the ingredients list might suggest. As always, the fewer the number of ingredients in a dish, the harder each has to work. For the carrots, even if you can’t get them from Crécy, choose carefully. Go for slender, fresh looking carrots, preferably organic. Larger, thicker carrots can often be tough. For chicken stock, homemade is best. If that’s not possible, choose a good quality commercial broth over bouillon cubes; I used an organic, free range chicken broth from Trader Joe’s.

Potage Crécy
Makes 4 cups [3 to 4 first course servings]
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Collection: French

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 leek, white and tender green parts, rinsed and sliced [see Kitchen Notes]
3/4 pounds carrots [about 5 or 6], diced
3/4 pounds russet or Yukon gold potatoes, diced
2-1/2 cups chicken stock or broth
1-1/4 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves [or 1/2 teaspoon dried]
1 cup half-and-half
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste [see Kitchen Notes]
additional fresh thyme leaves, for garnish [or finely chopped flat-leaf parsley—see Kitchen Notes]

Heat a dutch oven or large soup pot over medium heat. Melt butter and combine with olive oil. Add leeks and sauté, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Add potatoes and carrots and sauté for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Add thyme, cover the pot and simmer until carrots and potatoes are tender, about 25 minutes. Purée the soup in a blender or food processor, in batches, if necessary. [Alternatively, use a handheld immersion blender in the pot.]

Return puréed soup to the pot. Add half-and-half, lemon juice and nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper to taste [using a light hand, depending on how salty your chicken stock or broth is]. Bring to a simmer until just heated through. Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with fresh thyme leaves or parsley. Serve.

Kitchen Notes

Cleaning leeks. Leeks like to grow in sandy soil, so you need to clean them carefully. 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. When they’re cleaned, slice crosswise in 3/4-inch pieces.

Black pepper? White pepper? Many recipes, including the original for this soup, call for white pepper rather than black. And while white pepper is slightly milder in taste than black, the difference is minimal; the choice is usually based on visual aesthetics, with white pepper being specified for light colored foods. You see this a lot in fish recipes. Personally, I like the look of dark flecks of black pepper on most pale foods—especially with fish, which can otherwise look bland or sickly to me. So it’s your call, but I’m just as happy to stock one kind of peppercorns.

Keep it fresh, garnishwise. As the recipe says, you can substitute dried thyme for fresh in this soup. But if you use dry when cooking it, do not use it for your garnish; opt for chopped fresh parsley instead. The fresh thyme leaves [my first choice] give a delicate, slightly minty taste and a nice little crunch. Dried herbs need to cook in foods to soften and release their flavors; they fail miserably as garnishes.

Hungry for more soups? If cold weather has you in the mood for something soupy, just use my drop down Browse by Category menu and highlight Soups and Stews. You’ll also find a delicious potato soup in, of all places, the kitchen notes of Marion’s potato salad recipe. It’s an emergency recipe in case you overcook your potatoes to the point where they’re no longer potato saladworthy, and among its few ingredients is cheese. Need I say more?

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Rita January 28, 2009 at 3:29 am

Loved the soup, simple is often the way to go…

Laura January 28, 2009 at 3:40 pm

How handy…I have a drawer full of giant carrots that I picked up from the Greenmarket this past weekend and was just trying to figure out what to do with them! And you know how much I love my soup….not sure I can do a cup of half and half, but I will certainly give it a go.

RecipeGirl January 29, 2009 at 1:08 am

I can’t get past that droolworthy picture. Absolutely delicious looking soup. And yes, you’re right… the French ‘get’ food for sure :)

Mindy January 29, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Like Laura, I have a huge amount of carrots in my fridge right now thanks to my daughter who was begging for carrots (but will never make her way through the bag)! I think I’ll try this soon…

maggie January 30, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Yum. Perfect for the weather. We’ve been having soup almost every night!

Terry B January 30, 2009 at 3:36 pm

Thanks, Rita!

Laura—Yeah, but with four servings from this recipe, you’re only getting 1/4 cup of half and half in each serving. That’s less than seven grams of fat. And it makes it so velvety. I’ve seen fat-free half and half, but I shudder to think.

RecipeGirl—Thanks! I’m still exploring the Williams-Sonoma cookbook; expect to see more French goodies showing up here.

Do try it, Mindy. It’s got an interestingly not-so-carroty taste to it, so it’s one way to get through that bag of carrots without feeling overwhelmed.

maggie—Winter’s being a real treat, isn’t it? It’s had us in total soup mode.

Christina January 31, 2009 at 2:08 am

Does this turn out more potatoey tasting or carroty tasting? I’m expecting a motherload of carrots in about a month, and I’m looking for inspiration.

Carrot texture depends on the variety, I think (based on what I’ve grown and eaten, but I’m no expert by any means), and age, more than size. For example, and oxheart carrot tastes best and is at it’s most snappy crunchiness when it is big and fat, whereas an Imperiator carrot should be long and slender to be best. If an Imperiator (or any like it) gets fat, it’s old and tough.

Someday, I’ll probably be all three: fat, old, and tough.

Terry B January 31, 2009 at 3:14 am

Thanks for the carrot info, Christina! Regarding the taste, there’s a mild sweetness, thanks to the carrots, but really no one flavor takes over. Honestly, I’m generally not a huge fan of carrots except as an ensemble player—stews, vegetable soups—so I was wondering how this would be. The answer? Delicious and subtle.

Regarding the fat, old and tough thing, you might want to give ECG a heads up. Just sayin’.

katie January 31, 2009 at 10:03 am

Great soup! It’s taken me a bit to get used to having soups pureed, which they almost all are here. We were invited to dinner and there was a lovely Scotch Broth simmering away, filled with chunks of lamb, carrots, potatoes… Just before serving she whips out the stick blender….

Christina January 31, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Hee hee.

diva February 1, 2009 at 1:04 pm

that soup looks absolutely divine. i’ve been meaning to try more French recipes. i need to move out of my comfort zone! :) thanks for recommending some books. i’ll have a little look around and hopefully it’ll get me started! x

Margaret February 1, 2009 at 10:12 pm

I made this today — I had a few extra carrots and potatoes laying around to use up. We have a dairy-allergic kid, so I subbed coconut milk for the cream and took the soup in an Asian (French-Cambodian, maybe?) direction, adding ginger, garlic, curry powder, and a little minced chile, omitting the thyme and swapping lime juice for lemon. Very nice! Thanks for the inspiration.

Metroknow February 2, 2009 at 12:28 am

I am slightly embarrassed to say that I lost track of your site when you changed domains – I am So Glad I found you again. I am going to make this soup this evening, with a few slight variations. We have a bunch of leftover roasted vegetables from a dinner party last night, so they will contribute to the base of this soup. I’ll let ya know how it goes. :)

Thank you – and it’s so good so read your ideas again!

Mimi February 2, 2009 at 2:15 am

TerryB, I have been obsessed with soups this winter. I’ve made sausage-cabbage soup twice, black-bean vegetable, and asparagus plus a Brussels sprout-shallot soup. I am seldom happy with my soup photos, however.

Terry B February 2, 2009 at 5:21 pm

katie—While there are a number of puréed soups we love, we’re also big fans of chunky soups. Grinding up that lovely Scotch Broth sounds like a travesty to me, though. I’m sure it was delicious, but the pre-puréed version just sounds wonderful.

Thanks, diva! Julia Child’s book is a classic, of course, but as a visual kind of guy, I really love the photography in the Williams-Sonoma book. If I can see how something should look when it’s served, I get a much better sense of how it will taste—and how to make it.

Margaret—I love your Asian take on this soup! Marion makes a wonderful beef stew from Vietnam’s French colonial days that I must post here soon.

Welcome back, Metroknow! Can’t wait to hear how the soup turned out—I bet the roasted vegetables gave it a nice flavor.

Hi, Mimi. You now have me wanting all of those soups. Right now.

Melissa Grossman February 3, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Hey Terry – Today is day two of having to deal with silly amounts of rain in my area of southern France. It’s miserable outside and thus a perfect day for soup making inside. I made the above recipe for lunch today and really liked the ease and simplicity of it. But, I did end up adding a little cayenne and a little white balsamic to the pot – sticking with a light hand for both. This added a subtle kick and a light bright note to the soup. It could be that the vegetables (winter crop grown in a hothouse most likely) couldn’t muster enough oomph on their own. Or maybe the batch of homemade stock I used was wimpy. At any rate, thanks again for sharing your culinary wealth!

kellypea March 17, 2009 at 12:51 am

This recipe sounds quite satisfying and is definitely one to keep. I love French cuisine, and don’t find it fussy as many have labeled it. Thanks for sharing this one.

Alain Harvey March 22, 2012 at 11:44 pm

I observe my French friends eat soup at every meal from September through March and beyond. They attack it with relish, expounding over its wealth of flavor.

Every cook has a dozen potage recipes up their sleeve, depending on what’s at hand. When I make potage, I usually add an apple for a touch of extra sweetness (and because I live in Normandy where apples are used as both fruit and vegetable). Leeks, as stated, are primordial for flavor as is at least one starchy potato, for texture. Depending on how sweet I want the potage, I’ll add several carrots and an onion, then it’s anyone’s guess. Celery root and parsnip are other sweet vegetables, a Jerusalem artichoke adds earthy character, and turnips fill in flavor. Garlic is a necessity, and rosemary lends romance.

For the simplest potage, all the ingredients go in a pot, are covered with water, and go on the heat to simmer until everything is tender. Then the herbs come out, the wand-mixer goes in and presto! The potage is ready. I serve mine with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil (or butter, typical of Normandy!), and often a spoonful of hachis—minced parsley and garlic. It makes for a deliciously warming and virtuous dish.

For a more complex, richer potage, the onions, leeks and garlic can be sautéed in butter first, and then cooked in chicken broth instead of water.

The beauty of these soups and their ilk is their simplicity, both in ingredients and in cooking. They can be ready in an hour, or they can simmer for a long time on the back of the stove. This is a fundamental advantage to soup, one I have taken to heart this year more than others. Perhaps it’s a busier-than-usual schedule, or the fact that our home is full of teenagers. Whatever it is, soup is perfect because it’s ready when eaters are. And when served, with its curls of fragrant steam coming up from the bowl, it says so much more than just dinner—it’s comfort, it’s travel, it’s surprise.

As I pursue my soup-making, my pantry is expanding to include ingredients that will keep the pot fun. You, too, can keep these vibrant soups on your table.

Terry B March 23, 2012 at 3:25 am

Wow. A comment on a three-year-old post. First, let me catch up.

Melissa, one of the great things about soups like this—and recipes in general—is making it your own. Both your additions sound delicious.

Kellypea—There are indeed some elaborate, fussy French recipes out there, but French chefs and home cooks excel at simple, perfect meals like this one.

And Alain, thank you for your wonderful, thoughtful comment! You’ve given us a fascinating glimpse into a French kitchen—yours. You’ve also given home cooks everywhere some great ideas for customizing this delicious soup.

Barbara March 28, 2012 at 2:03 am

I add cayenne … but then I like it spicy and hot!

Andy October 19, 2012 at 5:57 pm

I have different versions of this soup but yours looks quite yummy! I will give it a try!
Also just a note on “crécy”, does not mean anything close to cold in French… cold in French is “froid”, but see below where it got it’s name from:
In France, the carrots grown in the vicinity of Crecy and have the reputation as being the best and the tastiest in the whole country — hence the name given to the soup.

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