I’ve been reading through a book my friend Dienesa found on the shelves at McKay’s during my last visit to Knoxville—Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking. It’s full of Julia Child’s basic recipes and variations on them. I’d skipped past a recipe at the very beginning every time I opened it, but then I started reading Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia and found potage parmentier.
As I read the first chapter (titled “The Road to Hell is Paved with Leeks and Potatoes,” mind you), Julie explained how I felt reading Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom—in awe of how clean and right the recipe instructions felt. Wondering at the simplicity (but not ease) of the recipes and at how such basic ingredients could make amazing dishes (I almost didn’t believe her when she wrote about how good this soup is).
Julie writes, “The thing you learn with Potage Parmentier is that “simple” is not exactly the same as “easy.” … Certainly I had made easier dinners. … Potage Parmentier didn’t hold a candle, in the easy department.” She then takes a couple pages to write out how to make Julia’s potato leek soup. I had never cooked with leeks before but found them incredible. Julie calls them “muddy little suckers” (true) but I loved most how their leaves are packed together. You can flip through them like book pages as you run water over them to get the dirt out. I’ve never seen a vegetable like that. And they have a faint, soft onion scent. Lovely.
All you have to do for potage parmentier is boil potatoes, leeks, and salt for about a half hour. Then you mash up (or puree) the potatoes (I used a pastry cutter to do this (carefully, because you’re basically sticking your hand into simmering soup), and it worked surprisingly well). Then you stir in a bunch of pepper and butter (I used about 2 tablespoons).
It wasn’t pretty. It was five ingredients—potatoes, leeks, salt, pepper, and butter. Six if you count water. But it was, let me tell you, incredible. It tasted like mashed potatoes with a faint onion-y taste. It was warm and comforting. And it was incredible because it was simple, even down to the potato-peeling.
Julie writes, “There’s something about peeling a potato. Not to say that it’s fun, exactly. But there’s something about scraping off the skin, and rinsing off the dirt, and chopping it into cubes…. Something about knowing exactly what you’re doing, and why. Potatoes have been potatoes for a long, long time, and people have treated them in just this way, toward the end of making just a soup. There is clarity in the act of peeling a potato, a winnowing down to one sure, true way.” (emphasis mine)
Cooking brings stability when many other things don’t feel stable—there is a meditative quality to the way I can chop potatoes or onions or leeks into a pile of uniform pieces. There is a reliability of recipes, their sure lists and measurements. Sometimes we need things to be the same every time: for potatoes to be potatoes, for basically anything to taste better with a little extra butter. There is comfort in knowing that if I combine certain ingredients, I will get something new (but expected). If it is the right five ingredients, I will get potage parmentier. Every single time.