Thursday, April 17, 2008

The lifelong comfort of a French Potage

One of the nicest things you can do for yourself, or a friend, is make a pot of soup. Soup has the magical power of being able to comfort and inspire.

I first met potage (pronounced poh-tahj) in Paris during my Sweet Briar Junior Year in France. I was thrilled to be living on Gertrude Stein’s street, at 16 rue de Fleurus in the 6th arrondissement, right off the Jardin de Luxembourg. My hostess, an extremely religious spinster, Mademoiselle Ley, served potage to Mary, Chris and me every evening as our first course. We never tired of it. It warmed us and settled our tummies for the meal to come.

The French have been making potage since time began. The beauty of potage is that you make it with whatever vegetables you have around. In lean times, the potage is thin; in good times, it's thick.

Potage will be the “little black dress” of your cooking repertoire. It is elegant and easy. It is sexily delicious and good for you too. It is perfect when you think you have nothing in the house to eat…or when you want to start an elegant dinner party with soup. Girlfriends and boyfriends will look at you with longing eyes. Even children love potage. The flavor is accessible to little palates and the texture is velvet.

Whenever I’m feeling blue, I fill a pot with water and throw in a few vegetables, and suddenly, the world is not such a scary place anymore.

I’ll start you off with quantities and vegetable suggestions, and then just make it with whatever you have in the house, using whatever quantity of water you want. Start tasting and adjusting until you have something you like.

French Potage

8 cups of water
2 potatoes
4 carrots
1 large onion
1 large squash – either a few zucchini or whatever you have (1/2 a butternut; one red pepper…you get the idea!)

Put the water in a large pot to bring to a boil.

Peel whatever veggies need peeling. Chop everything into large chunks. Toss into the pot.

Cover the pot and bring to a low boil. Let simmer until the veggies are really soft. Maybe 30-40 minutes.

When you can stick a fork into the veggies and they are extremely soft, turn off the flame and let everything cool down.

Scoop out some of the veggies and put them in a blender with a little bit of the water and blend to a puree.

Return the puree to the pot. Continue blending until all the veggies are pureed. You want a uniform, smooth soup.

Stir your potage. If the potage is too watery, boil it down a bit. If it is too thick, add some water.

Simmer your lovely potage as you add the seasonings. Again, whatever you have on hand: A tablespoon or two of powdered chicken broth is rather important. Taste and then add salt. A few grinds of pepper. I like to snip some fresh dill and parsley. (But if your kids hate little green stuff floating, then don’t.) You might add a pinch of thyme. A splash of balsamic vinegar to make the flavors sing.

In France, potage is served in a shallow soup bowl. You can serve it alone as a first course. For heartier fare, toss some croutons in or grate some cheese over it. It’s nice served with crusty bread and thinly sliced ham, but my favorite is to accompany potage with a grilled cheese sandwich.


As always, if you sauté the onion in a frying pan before you add it to the water, you will get a deeper flavor.

My daughter Nina likes me to go the extra step and sieve the soup after I puree it to give it an even finer texture.

For a different slant, you can break up a little spaghetti or toss some alphabets into the soup. But then it’s not really potage anymore.

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