There’s no way to calculate the impact Julia Child had on generations of American cooks. For me, she provided a turning point in my culinary education. I cooked my way through her first book in my early 20s, splattering the pages willy-nilly with sauce drips, softened butter, or melted chocolate. “Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volume One)” was my guide to conquering classic dishes, impressing my French then-husband and mother-in-law. Julia’s voice sang on those written pages; those words were my cherished guide.
To this day, one of my favorites from that early book is her version of watercress soup, a riff on leek and potato soup that spikes the creamy puree with the just-right boldness of watercress. Raw, watercress has a peppery personality, similar to its relatives, mustard greens and wasabi. Once cooked, its flavor profile calms down, offering a taste that is milder but still bright.
The soup can be served hot or cold. It’s delicious either way. Toast a thinly sliced French baguette to use as a crunchy crouton garnish, along with some freshly snipped chives. Or read on, to see my revised garnish with added attitude.
I like to make two tweaks in Julia’s formula that I think update it and add flavor interest. I add a few drops of an acidic hot sauce such as Frank’s RedHot to the finished soup. The vinegar in the sauce adds a just-right zing to the mix; it doesn’t make it spicy, but rather balances out the flavors. I also like to top the croutons with a spoonful of a vibrant, creamy sauce, combining crème fraiche (or sour cream) with an equal amount of prepared horseradish.
As Julia would have said, Bon Appetit.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
3 cups peeled, sliced baking potatoes, such as russets, about 4 medium-large potatoes or 3 large
3 cups sliced white (and light green) portion of cleaned leeks
1 1/2 quarts chicken broth or vegetable broth for a vegetarian version
1 cup packed washed fresh watercress leaves and tender stems
1/2 to 1 cup heavy whipping cream
Salt and freshly-ground white pepper to taste
Garnish: thinly sliced baguette, see cook’s notes
Optional garnish: crème fraiche or sour cream combined with equal amount of prepared horseradish
2-3 tablespoons sliced fresh chives
Cook’s notes: I like to slice the baguette, so it is almost as wide as the soup bowl; generally that means cutting the slices on a diagonal. I do two-per-bowl if space permits. Chill some soup cups if serving cold.
- Place potatoes, leeks and broth in large pot; bring to simmer on high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, 40 to 50 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Add watercress and simmer, partially covered, 5 minutes. Carefully puree in batches in food processor or blender or pass through food mill or puree using an immersion blender. Return to pot and stir in cream. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Reheat to serve warm, or chill if serving cold.
- Prepare croutons. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place baguette slices on rimmed baking sheet in single layer. Brush lightly on both sides with olive oil. Toast in middle of a preheated oven until crisp and lightly browned. Turn on a light and keep an eye on them. Time in the oven can vary from 5 to 8 minutes, depending on freshness of the bread. In my soup bowls, I can fit two croutons in a single layer.
- Ladle into bowls (or chilled cups). Top with croutons and small spoonful of crème fraiche mixture. Sprinkle on sliced chives or cut chives with clean scissors, letting pieces fall into bowls.
Source: Adapted from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Vol. 1)” by Julia Child