It is no longer hot-soup season in Delhi anymore. A rough draft of this post has been sitting all season. It is easily amongst my favourite soups and I have made it multiple times this past winter as well. There is just one problem – I have found it very hard to photograph.
Good picture or not, I am writing about this hearty winter soup so that those of you still in the cold can make a bowl and think of me. We are talking comfort food here.
If we talk comfort food, can potatoes be far behind? And this potato soup is a must try. It has a link to graduate school for me. There were some of us who would bring brown bags for lunch, usually leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. No better way to unwind from a good day at school than to cook yourself a good meal (after that cup of tea, of course). And if you are, as I was, separated from your family by a couple of continents and an ocean, a good meal is what you need. Not microwavable frozen pizza.
On most days we want to cook simple dishes that are easy to prepare, homely, yet satisfy the need for change. Exotic dishes that require slaving in the kitchen for hours cannot be part of graduate school. And my impatient nature explains my affinity for dishes that look deceptively complicated.
Most of my Grad-school mates were good cooks and great hosts. Someone amidst us was always hosting a dinner on the weekends. On Fridays a notice would appear on the two exit doors of our studio announcing the BYOB weekend dinner. I had up until then never cared for any kind of booze. But then most people in India (those days) drank whiskey and soda, rum, or Indian beer. As an undergrad, I had had enough late night parties in my Studio (it was a very liberal time!), away from the supervising eyes of parents, and yet never understood the big idea behind getting drunk. There must be one because young people continue to follow this tradition.
And it was not my middle-class upbringing holding me back either. I had seen my Dad enjoy his single malt Scotch and Soda on a regular basis, though naturally, my mother did not drink. If it was good enough for my Dad, it was good enough for me. But, though I loved to smell his drink, I did not like the taste. And therein lies the prime reason for me to imbibe anything – it has to taste good.
The first of those weekend parties I remember going to was at Mike’s. I was new to that country, and new to my friends. But Mike was the perfect host. “You don’t drink!” he exclaimed. I explained it was not that I had any religious taboos, just that I preferred lemonade over alcohol. He took that as a challenge and said he would fix me a drink I would find hard to put down. He knew what he was talking about. He used to work as a bartender.
I like coffee. Mike made a Kahlua Mudslide. The rest is history.
This was no ordinary Kahlua. He and his Dad make their own brand of home-made Kahlua. After tinkering with different alcohols and vanilla beans, they had arrived at a combination of vanilla beans and instant coffee powder with a base of Jack Daniels. Later, he was to introduce me to what is my favourite drink. Margaritas. With limes. On the rocks, not frozen. Upon graduation, I received a bottle of Mike’s Kahlua. I was mighty pleased. 🙂
That night Mike also served a crispy stir-fry that had water-chestnuts, and with the drinks there were fresh pumpkin seeds toasted in butter. (I can’t believe I remember – it was more than 10 years ago!).
But I wanted to talk about Rodney Riffle’s potato soup. Okay. I was talking leftovers for lunch at Grad school. We would sometimes head to the cafeteria for lunching. A few would buy their lunch, and some of us would open our boxes. It was nice to walk away from the studio and eat sitting around a table. Like a regular family, you might say!
We would take a peek at each other’s lunches, taste from each other’s plates. On one of these lunches Rodney brought his potato soup. It was glorious. Next day he gave me the recipe, a photo-copied page that his mother had sent, a page from Southern Living. [Jan 2016: He and his mom own their own nuts-based business now! How wonderful!]
I have made major changes to the original recipe. First of all, the Indian in me could never bring myself to bake the potatoes in the oven for an hour (or more) when the pressure cooker does the job in a few minutes. There may be a difference in taste, but still you cannot take the Indian out of me! Imagine how much cooking I can get done in that fuel!! Second, the health conscious cook in me cannot put that amount of butter in anything, so I slashed it to a third. Here, I will admit, the butter must make a difference. So, if you are one of those people who work on your farm all day, do triple the amount of butter in this recipe. The rest of you, work harder to fry the flour in the much smaller amount of butter. The soup is still deliciously lip-smacking. Third, I have tried it with bacon, as per the original recipe, and without, since in the US I was living with my vegetarian sister for some time, and here in India, most of the rest of my family is vegetarian, bacon is hard to find (and suspect), and I just do prefer it vegetarian. If you want to use bacon, just cook and crumble it, and divide it into the bowls, saving some for the garnish.
Instead of the bacon, I prefer to add some celery to the soup. I like everything about the celery: the crunchy texture and the flavour it adds to this soup. The celery is from my garden. It has grown much since I used it last month. Tonight it is going into my tomato soup, stalks, leaves and all, a much lighter soup for present weather.
4 large potatoes
¼ -2/3 C butter
1/2 C all purpose flour
8 C milk (I use 3%)
½ t (or more) freshly ground pepper
4 spring onions, chopped
½ C (or more) celery, chopped
½ C celery leaves, chopped
1 C shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
½ C yoghurt (or sour cream)
Bake or pressure cook potatoes till done. Peel and pulp.
Melt butter over low heat in a heavy pan. Add flour, stirring constantly, till cooked. If you have never done this before, you may want to use more butter. Cooking the flour will take longer and a more careful watch if using less butter. Gradually add the milk, stirring constantly. There may be some lumps, but do not worry. Just smoosh them with the back of your spoon. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until the soup thickens and bubbles.
Add the potato pulp, salt, pepper, chopped celery, green onions, and most of the cheese. Cook until heated thoroughly. Turn heat off and add the yoghurt or sour cream. Thin with more milk if required. Serve garnished with some of the reserved onions, celery leaves, and cheese.
Variation: Instead of celery, use a cup or two of chopped fresh spinach towards the end of the cooking time. Cook till the spinach is wilted. You may also add a little garlic to the butter in the first step.