A Page Outa: The Beginning

After I posted the last Shiftwork Bites piece, the same question kept popping up from friends and well wishers - "What's next?" I pondered that for a while, trying to find a new avenue for creativity, exploration, and challenge. Cooking from The French Laundry Cookbook and Alinea was a deeply rewarding experience, and I thought it might be fun to capture the excitement and difficulty of that project, but in a new and different way.

Everyone does "cook the book" blogs. While it's a great idea, and I love some blogs dedicated to that concept, I wanted to take the basic idea in a slightly new direction. That's what "A Page Outa" is all about. With each post, I will tackle a different recipe, taken from a different cookbook. I might do French classical cuisine from Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire for one piece, moving onto Claudia Roden's The Book of Jewish Food for the next.

Along the way, I'm sure I'll pick up new techniques and discover yet-untried ingredients. I'm also pretty sure I'll screw a few things up pretty fantastically. That's okay; it's part of the point. If you can't fail constructively, you probably shouldn't be trying in the first place.

Now for the fun part. I'm letting you pick what I cook. You heard that right, I'm giving the reigns to "A Page Outa" to you, the readers. My hope is that you'll chime in in the comments section. Recommend a cookbook, a recipe, or even a cuisine. I'll pick one and run with it for the next post. Please be gentle.

Since I'm pretty sure you won't honor that last request (it's cool; I wouldn't, either), I decided to take it easy on myself for this first one. I thought it would be good to start off with a classic, and wavered between Mastering the Art of French Cooking and James Beard's American Cookery. Julia won out. In a decision completely unrelated to Katharine's recent post on summer soups, I settled on Vichyssoise (pro-tip: that "e" at the end means you pronounce the "s" - think "swaaz").

I've made versions of this soup many times, but always just from rough sketches rather than recipes. Granted, the recipe isn't much more than a sketch, itself. The result is delicious and surprisingly elegant, perfect as a light lunch or soup course, or as dinner when served with plenty of good bread and butter alongside.

The process is very simple. Basically, you thinly slice the white parts of some leeks, and do the same with some peeled potatoes. You want equal parts leeks and potatoes. You then simmer the vegetables in an equal volume of stock or water until the vegetables are tender, seasoning with salt and white pepper. The soup is then pureed, strained, and chilled. A small amount of cream is stirred in prior to serving, and Julia recommends a simple garnish of chopped chives.

I deviated very slightly from the recipe. Where Julia calls for white (veal) or chicken stock, I substituted brown veal stock. I thought I'd had some chicken stock on hand, but didn't. An emergency run to Revival Market solved the problem, but they only had brown veal stock on hand and thawed. Jerks. I also picked up some Way Back When Dairy cream for the soup, and some Slough Dough bread to go alongside. Just kidding about that jerk comment.

In order to make sure that the color (it was a dark stock) didn't affect the finished soup, I used one third stock to two thirds water. It was perfect. The sweet richness of the veal stock elevated the dish, bringing out the sweetness of the leeks and the earthiness of the potatoes, and adding a lovely background savoriness that I wouldn't have achieved with chicken stock.

For garnish, I went with Julia and chopped some chives from the garden, but I also deep fried the roots from my leeks (an idea I borrowed from local home cook superhero David Leftwich) and piled them on top. The leek roots were nutty and sweet, and added a nice textural contrast to the silky soup.

A few recommendations for this dish. First, buy an immersion blender. It's invaluable for dishes like this, allowing you to purée the soup right in its pot. Second, to get the soup chilled quickly, nest the pot inside a larger one filled with ice water. The heat from the soup will transfer to the cold water, and your soup will chill quickly. Third, remember that this dish is to be served cold, and our taste buds do not perceive flavor as vividly in cold food. Bear that in mind while seasoning. Your hot soup should taste slightly over-seasoned, in order for your cold soup to taste properly seasoned.

So, that's round one. It was nice to walk through the no-nonsense recipe Julia provides, reminding me both that her cookbook is a treasure, and that vichyssoise is both incredibly easy and amazingly delicious. With that said, I have one question for you guys. What's next?

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall