Did you know that the homely little potato, staple supreme among staples, the vegetable that we are most apt to both love and take for granted, was lauded in 2008 by the United Nations with the International Year of the Potato? As the website says, the purpose of this focus is to raise global awareness of the potato’s key role in agriculture, the economy, and world food security. All worthy goals. Potatoes are a food crop that is widely grown and not subject to global trade issues. Women all over the world grow potatoes to sustain and nourish their families.
It is widely claimed that a diet of only potatoes and milk can sustain human life indefinitely. That’s good to know, especially as Northwest regional fresh vegetables become scarce during the late winter and early spring months. And as the economy doesn’t appear to be turning around anytime soon, a good cook should have several great potato dishes with which she can extend the grocery budget.
So to get into the spirit of the International Year of the Potato (even though a year late) and to bring to mind and heart the plight of so many undernourished people around the world, I offer this simple and truly delicious soup, which I have been perfecting for God only knows how long.
Potato soup, next to a baked or mashed potato, is probably the most basic way a potato can be prepared. Cook a peeled potato in water until tender, puree the lot, and you have potato soup. Not a very tasty soup, to be sure, but palatable enough with a little salt and pepper. You could live on it. But if you add just a few more ingredients, none of them very expensive, you can not only live, but live quite happily, on this humble soup.
There are hundreds of recipes on the web for potato soup. If you do a search on Epicurious, you will find 289 versions. This number includes many soups that are really more about some other ingredient. But there are some wonderful ideas nonetheless, and after you master this basic, simple, creamy, smooth, and absolutely delicious Cream of Potato & Five Onion Soup, you will be prepared to use it like a “little black dress,” changing it this way and that way with seasonal “accessories.” We’ll explore a few variations here to get you started.
I have tested and retested this soup many times over the years, adjusting the key elements to create a soup with good body and memorable flavor. The onion element, for instance, began as a mere hint of flavor and then expanded, test after test, to a rich depth that fully complements the potato without overwhelming it completely.
I have tested with both water and a variety of homemade stocks, and my vote goes to chicken stock. Homemade is best, but canned will also work. There are many brands of chicken broth available today and most of them have barely more taste than water. Some even have an objectionable taste. Do sample several over time and select your favorite to stock the pantry. Of course, if you prefer a vegetarian rendition, use your favorite vegetable stock.
Potato & Five Onion Soup + Variations
I have never eaten a potato soup that was not comforting and satisfying, even if occasionally bland or uninspired. Five members of the onion family make the difference here. Together, they heighten and add dimension to the flavor of the potatoes. If you are serving this as a first course for a special dinner, I suggest using the optional butter and herb enrichment for the added visual appeal, but otherwise this soup is excellent even without a garnish. Crumbled, cooked bacon is great as a topping too, if you happen to have some on hand.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 cups peeled, chopped yellow onions (about 2 large onions)
1 cup peeled, chopped shallots (about 6 medium shallots)
1 cup chopped leeks, white portion only (about 1 large leek)
6 large cloves peeled garlic, pressed or minced
8 cups peeled, chopped Russet Burbank baking potatoes (about 6 large Russet Burbank (baking) potatoes or 2½ pounds)
8 cups chicken stock
2 cups cream
fine sea salt, to taste
freshly ground white pepper, to taste
½ cup minced parsley
½ cup minced green onion, green portion only, or chives
optional: 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
optional: crumbled cooked bacon
- Melt the oil and butter in a soup pot and add the onions, shallots and leeks. Cook over medium-low heat for 15 minutes or so, until the onions are well softened, but not browned Add the garlic, stir to combine, and cook for 2 more minutes without browning.
- Add the potatoes and stock, cover partially, bring to a boil, and simmer slowly until the potatoes are very tender, about 20-30 minutes. (Add a little more stock if too much liquid evaporates.)
- Using an immersion blender, puree the soup in the soup pot. (If you don’t have an immersion blender, lift the solids from the stock with a mesh skimmer or put through a strainer to separate the solids from the liquid, and then puree in a processor. Add potatoes and stock back to the pot.)
- Add the cream. Stir to combine and bring to just below a simmer.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper. Potatoes require quite a lot of salt, so don’t be dismayed by how much you will have to add.
- Although not necessary for most dining occasions, if you want the soup to be silky smooth, put it through a triple mesh chinoise, pressing hard on any bits of onion and potato that are reluctant to go through.
- If desired, just before serving, stir in the parsley and green onion, or for a more dramatic presentation, process the butter with the parsley and green onion, and then swirl dollops of the flavored butter through each portion.
- If desired, top with crumbled cooked bacon.
Makes about 14 cups.
Variation 1: Potato, Five Onion, & Parmesan Soup
- At Step 4, add 1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese.
Variation 2: Potato, Onion, & Sour Cream Soup
It doesn’t sound like a major change, but adding a sour note to a dish can have dramatic results. I often swirl sour cream or crème fraîche into soups as a garnish, but here they become an integral part of a complex flavor matrix.
- At Step 4, replace 1 cup of cream with sour cream or crème fraîche. To garnish, add a dollop of sour cream or crème fraîche to each serving.
Variation 3: Potato, Five Onion, Cheddar & Bacon Soup
This is a baked potato in a bowl. The additional crunchy, savory elements are a perfect foil for this creamy soup.
- Skip Step 7 and 8. Instead, top each serving with grated cheddar cheese, crumbled cooked bacon, chopped green onions, and a dollop of sour cream.
Variation 4: Cold Potato & Five Onion Soup
This chilled variation will take you right into summer. It’s a riff on the French classic soup, Vichyssoise, which I begin to crave when Northwest temperatures move into the 70’s, usually between May and October.
- After Step 6, let the soup cool somewhat, and then cover and refrigerate for several hours. Adjust seasoning before serving.