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Leek and Potato Pistou
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“Of all the items on the menu, soup is that which exacts
the most delicate perfection and the strictest attention.”

~ Auguste Escoffier

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Leek and Potato Pistou

Cooking with Herbs:
The Flavor of Provence

By Michel Biehn, English translation by
Josephine Bacon © 2001 Flammarion Inc.


“ ‘Soupe au Pistou’ is indubitably one of the glories of Provençal cooking.
It calls for lots of vegetables, such as onions, zucchini and potatoes, as
well as green, white, and pink beans. Some people add tomatoes and
pine nuts; others throw in pasta, carrots, or salt pork. In fact there are
a thousand-and-one recipes for ‘soupe au Pistou’ and almost all of
them are delicious.
The recipe I am giving you here is a very old one from the area of Nice,
and the result is lighter and simpler than other versions. Although the tra- ditional beans are absent, it is a genuine Pistou, because the recipe begins
with ‘crushing’ and that is what ‘pistou’ is all about. (The word comes
from the Latin ‘pistus’, meaning ‘crushed’ or pounded.’) So to begin
you will need a marble mortar and a boxwood or olive pestle with which
to crush
a bunch of large-leafed basil and
three large Provençal garlic cloves
in one cup (250 ml) of olive oil,
reducing the mixture to a pulp.

The real difference is in the ingredients of this soup, which consist ex-
clusively of leeks and potatoes, although a couple of white onions could
be slipped in without too much harm.
So, after pounding the pistou, take a deep pot and fill it with two quarts
(2 liters) of salted and peppered water. Take
one pound (500 g) of potatoes,
washed, peeled and diced,
and add them to the pot with
one pound (500 g) of the white part
of the leeks sliced into rings,
and the two onions.
The soup should cook for one hour. Remove it from the heat and mix it
with the pistou immediately. Season to taste. Serve this wonderful soup
with a large bowl of Parmesan shavings, which will melt around the
soup vegetables.
To drink with this tasty soup, try a red wine from the Domaine de la Bernarde, with its smell of violets and truffles (in the case of the old
vintages) and its voluptuous suppleness.
Should any soup be left over, add two tablespoons of crème fraîche
or thick yogurt and puree in a blender, before chilling for an hour or
two in the refrigerator. Garnish this cold soup with a few basil leaves
and serve it ice-cold as a starter. There is no need for Parmesan when
served cold.


“Provence owes much of its identity to India, including, of course,
brightly colored cotton calico, printed with sprigs of exotic blooms,
and indigo, the deep blue dye used for denim, originally ‘de Nîmes’
from Nîmes). One day, hidden among the bales of cotton cloth,
the silks, sacks of spices, and other treasures imported from India,
there arrived an herb that is considered sacred in its native country.
A few centuries later, it has become the herb that is considered most
typical of Provençal cooking – basil.
In India, basil is dedicated to the god Vishnu who will not suffer the
plant to be badly treated in any way and who rejects the prayers of
those who destroy it. Curiously, these sacred legends also made their
way to Provence. At one time, the picking of basil in Provence was
accompanied by an intricate ritual. The herbalist had to purify his right
hand, the one he used to pick the plant, by taking an oak branch and
dipping it in the water of three different streams before sprinkling it
over the hand. He had to wear clean clothes and distance himself
from any impurity.
Today, basil is widely cultivated in various varieties. The commonest
is ‘fine green basil; which the producers call ‘Marseillais.’ It grows in
compact, round tufts which makes it particularly suited for growing in
pots. But there are many other varieties including ‘purple,’ ‘large
green,’ and ‘bush’ basil. It is important to note that basil is best if
eaten fresh. When dried it loses all its flavor and personality, and if
preserved in oil its flavor is denatured. But you have the whole sum-
mer to enjoy the sight of a pretty pot of basil in the kitchen window.”

Featured Archive Recipes:
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Cream of Leek and Onion Soup
Leek and Potato Soup with Stilton, Part and Sage
Louis Diat's Crème Vichyssoise Glacée
Lemon Zucchini Vichyssoise
Patricia Wells's Winter Pistou 

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