Thursday, March 14, 2013

Where Do I Get My Recipes? A Long Story and Green Herb Potato Soup

"Do you test your recipes?"  is the first question people usually ask when they hear I write cookbooks. I always suspect they're inquiring because at some point some cookbook author's dish came out gawd-awful for them. 

When I answer, "Yes, always!" and they look highly skeptical, I'm sure they've been burned in the past.  

But I truly am a stickler: This particular recipe was tested three times before I got the texture and taste right. Sometimes, a dish is tested and tweaked many more times than that before I consider it "publication worthy." (For much more on this topic, go here.)

Sometimes, (rarely, thank goodness) I eventually sadly conclude that the dish was just a bad idea and give up on it. In the interest of economy I do try to  serve some of the better failures to my family. Which has led the hubs, an engaged, supportive companion over my entire food writing career, to say, "It's good enough for me to eat, but not good enough to go in a cookbook!"

The inevitable follow-up question I'm asked, "Where do you get your recipes?" is a lot tougher. I'm always tempted to respond with, "Have you got an hour?" because, as people often say of relationships, "It's complicated."

Take the Cream of Green Herb-Potato Soup here. It just sort of evolved and emerged from about a dozen ideas rattling around in my head since I first made Julia Child's Potage Parmentier back in the early 1970s. Potage Parmentier sounded so grand that I initially tried it mostly to enjoy rolling the words off my tongue, but, in fact, this humble  French Potato-Leek Soup is justly famous. (BTW, Parmentier was a French horticulturist born in 1737; his name is always a tip-off a dish contains potatoes.)

Volume I of Julia's  Mastering the Art of French Cooking served up another revelatory recipe that was an early precursor  to this Cream of Green Herb-Potato Soup--a watercress potage. At that point in my culinary education using a fresh herb such as watercress in any cooked dish was a most exotic and exciting notion! I filed the info away and have put it to good use any number of times since.

A few years later when my family went to live in Germany I discovered a traditional heavily herbed potato soup called "GrĂ¼ne Suppe, Frankfurter Art," (meaning Green Soup, Frankfurt Style). Assorted fresh green herbs not only contributed a distinct green color to the local specialty, but imparted an extremely intriguing and enticing vegetable flavor. 

Another bit of inspiration for this soup came a couple of years later when I discovered on a trip to Denmark that a heavy sprinkling of fresh chopped dillweed (along with a generous chunk of butter) did extraordinary things for a simple dish of  boiled potatoes.

 I think you get the picture! This recipe (like many) is somehow drawn from a whole grab bag of culinary samplings, experiences, kitchen experiments and know-how amassed over the decades. (For another, totally different but equally good potato soup, try the curried version.)

Cream-of-Green Herb-Potato Soup

What's up with the cauliflower in this recipe, you wonder? I discovered while working on a book called Skinny Soups some years ago that adding cauliflower to a potato soup not only reduced the calories, but added nice flavor and valuable nutrients. 

To pare down the prep time and get this very tasty soup on the table a bit faster, I call for leftover mashed potatoes. Don't tell anybody, but I have even used purchased, ready-to-serve mashed potatoes, and they will do just fine. 

You do need to remove the coarse stems from the dillweed and parsley and use only the leaves though. The stems are too tough to produce a pleasant texture.

Of course, the color makes this soup a perfect choice for St. Paddy's Day. In the left side of the pic above, you can see the edge of a slice of Irish soda bread, likewise an appropriate option if you're interested in marking the occasion in a traditional fashion. Another possibility--my Guinness Extra Stout no-knead bread is here.

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into bits
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 cups chopped cauliflower florets
4 cups reduced-sodium or regular chicken broth
1/2 cup each fresh coarsely chopped dillweed and parsley leaves (no stems)
3 tablespoons finely snipped fresh chives, plus more for garnish
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup half-and-half (or ¼ cup each regular milk and light cream)
1 1/2 to 2 cups leftover mashed potatoes, as needed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a 4-quart saucepan or similar-size soup pot, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cauliflower and cook, stirring, about 3 minutes, until the onion softens but does not begin to brown. Add 1 1/2 cups broth; adjust heat so the mixture simmers and cook for 5 minutes, then set aside. 

In a food processor, combine the herbs and cornstarch and pulse until the herbs are finely chopped. Scoop up 2 cups of cauliflower mixture (drain the excess broth back into the pot) and add vegetable mixture to the processor. Process until the herbs are finely chopped and the mixture well blended and as smooth as possible.   

Add the pureed mixture back to the pot, along with the remaining 2 1/2 cups broth. Bring back to a boil, and cook, stirring, until slightly thickened, about 3 to 4 minutes. Whisk in the half-and-half and 1 1/2 cup mashed potatoes until smoothly and evenly incorporated. For a thicker soup, whisk in more potatoes as needed. Taste and add salt and pepper if desired. Return the soup to the stove, and heat, stirring to piping hot. Serve garnished with chopped chives and sprigs of dillweed, if desired. Makes 1 1/2 quarts of soup, 4 or 5 main dish servings.

 Fine accompaniments to this soup recipe: Guinness stout bread, left, and Irish soda bread, right. Or perhaps you'd like my curried potato soup instead of this one.



Stephanie Stiavetti on March 14, 2013 at 5:12 PM said...

"It's good enough for me to eat, but not good enough to go in a cookbook!"

Love that so, so much.

Nancy Baggett on March 14, 2013 at 6:39 PM said...

I agree--he has said that a lot over the years and I always laugh. And it makes it so clear that he "gets" what I'm doing!

Willa Blair on March 15, 2013 at 12:26 PM said...

That sounds yummy. I love garlicky cauliflower "faux mashed potatoes", so cauliflower in this soup sounds perfect. I'll have to try this recipe.

Kathryn on March 15, 2013 at 12:49 PM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathryn on March 15, 2013 at 12:50 PM said...

Oh gosh, this looks so-o-o-o good. I think I'll have to make it. Like now!

Anonymous said...

Yum, I'm off to the supermarket to buy cauliflower and fresh herbs.

Louise Donaldson290

Rebecca York on March 15, 2013 at 3:43 PM said...

Very tempting. As you know, I love soup and love making it. And I don't understand why people would want to put other people's recipes in their blog. If I put a recipe in my blog, which I do occasionally, it's something I created myself.

Nancy Baggett on March 15, 2013 at 4:20 PM said...

Rebecca, I, too, feel like I'm offering something extra by posting my own recipes. The only time I feel really comfortable using other people's work is when I'm showcasing their cookbook. Then it makes sense to me, as I'm emphasizing what's in their book!

Jamie on March 17, 2013 at 3:53 AM said...

I have to say, Nancy, that I totally understand the readers question. How many times have I or friends made a recipe from a cookbook or cooking magazine or blog to have it totally fail? I find it stunning that untested recipes can be published. Okay, maybe on a blog someone posting something they have only made the once is understandable, and making something from any untrained home cook from a blog is a risk, although maybe it shouldn't be? But coming from a professional it would be unforgiveable. Thank YOU for sharing with us your own process (I know from your cookbook how perfect your recipes are) I also love your husband's comment! Good for him! And btw - my husband makes his grating with a combo of cauliflower and potatoes...

Elizabeth on March 17, 2013 at 8:38 AM said...

If I were writing a cookbook, I would definitely test each recipe several times (and get others to test as well). Is this not standard procedure? I would hope it would be! If it isn't standard procedure then hurrah for you and your integrity.

However, I confess that on my blog, we often make something once and it's so fabulous that we simply post what we did. When we make it again, it might not turn out exactly the same but we don't really care. It still tastes good, making it (as your husband so aptly said) "good enough [...] to eat, but not good enough to go in a cookbook!"

I would never have thought of adding cauliflower to cream of potato soup. I love cauliflower but would have thought its flavour would take over the more delicate flavour of the potatoes. And yet, judging from the photo, your soup looks fabulous.

Nancy Baggett on March 17, 2013 at 10:17 AM said...

Jamie and Elizabeth, I agree that it is a different issue when one posts on a blog as opposed to creates recipes for a cookbook. Blog recipes are free, and also, they can be changed readily. Readers and publishers have a right to be angry when cookbook recipes don't work--assuming they actually follow the author's instructions :-)

Writing cookbooks has become more competitive than ever, so regular trade books, as opposed to community fund-raiser cookbooks, really need to work. Bad recipe reviews by disgruntled readers can deep-six a cookbook these days.

Dianne Jacob on March 17, 2013 at 12:03 PM said...

Nancy, I can't remember which post it was, but I'll never forget the time you said you decided to spend less time developing recipes for your blog than for your books.

I hope I've got this right. It makes sense to me. Not that this recipe is not accomplished -- it is, of course -- but just that you are a professional, so writing recipes and blogging is a little different for you.

Nancy Baggett on March 17, 2013 at 1:00 PM said...

Dianne, I did say that, but, in fact, I can't make myself actually put anything that hasn't tested out well on the blog either! One thing I do occasionally do is borrow recipes from my own books and articles as a starting point. I normally find that my thinking has evolved since I did the recipe, or maybe I want to try a different flavor/spice combo, or maybe figure out how to make it quicker/easier. It seems perfectly okay to me to borrow from myself!

Elizabeth on March 18, 2013 at 10:12 AM said...

When we are planning to have something new, we generally consult as many recipes for it as we can find - in our cookbooks and on the internet (because I'm afraid that both of us are almost incapable of following one recipe exactly) and then amalgamating all that we've read to come up with something similar but different.

I am amazed at the increasing number of recipes on the internet that are copied and pasted verbatim from another site. Who does that?! Were they ill or at the dentist on the day that plagiarism was being taught in school?

Nancy Baggett on March 18, 2013 at 1:53 PM said...

Elizabeth, I don't know the answer. There has always been some notion that recipes were just to be passed around--that nobody owned them and that is not really the case. I believe according to copyright law, that nobody can own the particular formula of specific group of ingredients set forth in a recipe. HOWEVER, the author certainly owns the text--that is, the name of the recipe, any intro remarks, and the text that tells how to make the dish. Peeps MUST at least write the recipe in their own words or they are plagiarizing.

Amalgamating is indeed a reasonable, acceptable way to go--in terms of getting ideas and seeing what approaches are taken by other recipe developers. Before I had my own large data base of personally created and tested recipes, I did that, and still do look to see what's on the Web. But often Web searches reveal that with slightly unusual dishes, they are all just minor riffs on the same one author's recipe--that those posting have done virtually nothing to make the dish their own.

Toby Devens said...

Soup looks lovely and sounds delicious. I'll wait for the chives and dill to come up in the herb garden beneath my breakfast room window. I know it's to be served piping hot, but how would it be if served chilled in summer--as in a vichyssoise?



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