With a little bit of leek
Adding a twist of something different to a soup everyone's made before
I have only a little respect for the leek.
Creamy colored member of the onion family, about as fat as a really fat sausage, tapering into clusters of flat deep-green leaves. When cooked, tastes like, well, cooked onion leaves. Some Bombay club with colonial pretensions had it on its menu, and everyone was going ooh and aah, so I made similar sounds and ordered it enthusiastically lest they decided I was a lumpen element. Then the leek soup arrived, and by Zeus, it tasted like boiled onion leaves, a thinnish concoction, with a small swirl of cream and a single parsley leaf on it, and accompanied by two slices of buttered breadBut since everyone was going ooh and aah, I concluded that the fault was probably in my own upbringing, and made great gobsmacking sounds of appreciation.
For years after that, I kept my distance from leeks, and they stayed away from me. I never thought that one day that damned vegetable would appear to me in a dream, begging me to cook it, pleading with me to make something respectable out of it. But it did, on the night of July 29, as I tossed and turned in a restless, uneasy vegetable sleep.
Then it came to me, fully formed, like a vision, the entire recipe that would turn the leek into a new man.
I would cut the leek nice and thin, and wilt it in butter, together with onions and maybe a little garlic. To give it a little body, I'd add a nice potatoes, boiled and mashed. Once it cooled, I would purée the blighter, add water and bring it to a boil. When it was approaching a certain thickness, I would salt and pepper it, and serve it with baguette bread. I could see it would be an elegant, minimal soup, with butter and pepper enhancing the wimpy leek.
And the best thing about it was that it was an original recipe.What can I say? I was its very inventor. The idea was brand new — I had not thought of it.
That is, until I did. That made it original, creative, even.
For me, anyway.
Thinking it was time I let the world know, I googled Leek Soup.
And realized that my lovely little recipe was already on the net. About 73 million people were making leek soup exactly like me.
I knew the old Beatle song, about taking a sad soup and making it better. So I took a long, hard look at my original invention that everyone was doing already, and decided that the potato had to go. Potatoes are doms, they just take over everything, and the leek is a wimp, will allow anyone to boss it around. But my inner chef told me that true originality required that I add something no one had added before. That night, I took a mind-altering peg of Henessey's brandy, and waited for a dream to come. And it did. The answer was so blindingly obvious — fennel!!
The fennel is a magical bulb. It looks like a Disney animated toon, with a light green and cream colored and things like antennae sticking out, with fine fibre-like leaves. But the best part of the fennel is its delicate, tantalizing flavour, which falls in the anise family. Fennel, I realized, was exactly what the leek needed to add some mystery to it. I'd cut the fennel into thin slices, sauté them along with the leeks, and then make 'em all together into soup. How about that?
To be on the safe side, I of course googled leek fennel soup. That's when the bad news came. 1,278,834 people were making this soup even as I wrote. I felt like a character from Greek mythology, cursed by the gods to repeat the same action again and again with no hope of reprieve.
I let a couple of days pass to get over the trauma of learning I was not yet the culinary genius I thought I was. And then I went back to the chopping board.
This time I decided: no new vegetables. Leek and fennel had to remain the main actors. That left only flavorings and herbs. I went back into a dream state again — and by sunrise, I had new inspiration. It was called tarragon.
I used to grow tarragon in my herb garden in Nairobi, and the thing you'd notice about it is that it becomes exquisitely more aromatic when it is dried, not unlike my other favorite, fenugreek, which can overwhelm an entire suitcase of clothes through two layers of ziploc. Over the years, I have discovered that there are few salads, soups and pastas that are not dramatically improved by a sprinkling of dried tarragon, so I keep a large industrial-sized bottle of it in my kitchen.
It soon became obvious that fennel, so seductive when you cut it first, starts having a meltdown when you saute it with leeks. It doesn't disappear, but it fails to tantalize. It just gets cooked out of shape. The solution was obvious, of course. I should just add a few fresh leaves of fennel at the end, to re-introduce that fresh taste.
And so I went along, try this and that to introduce some semblance of culture and breeding to the leek, until, finally, against all odds, I had a recipe that you could not find on the Internet.
And here's how the song went.
- If using bacon, fry it in a teaspoonful of olive oil, until the fat has mostly melted and the bacon is getting crisp. Add the butter now and the remaining olive oil and saute the sliced leeks, fennel and garlic together on a low flame, till they wilt, and begin to brown at the edges, between 10 and 15 minutes. Take it off the fire and let it cool on a plate.
- Purée the leeks and fennel when it has cooled, with a little salt. (Go easy on the salt if you used bacon.) I like to keep the soup coarse, but you might prefer a fine creamy purée.
- Add the chicken stock, and warm up. Do not let it boil or simmer. This is when you stir in some freshly ground pepper, and the tarragon, just before you turn the fire off.
- Sprinkle with fresh fennel leaves before serving.
Adding bacon gives the soup a smoky flavor, but also makes it a sit a little heavier on the stomach. If you like your soups light or vegetarian, skip the bacon and use vegetable stock instead of chicken.
As a special incentive to you trying this soup out in your own home, we have a special offer, valid for the next three months, in which you are allowed to claim that you invented this soup yourself, and make yourself look like a real dude — or dudess — before those you love.