sprinklefingers: potato leek soup


recipes and cooking are so funny. and by ‘funny’ i mean that they are sometimes a pain in the ass. the majority of people i know are so tied to recipes and have been using them for so long that their ability to improvise in the kitchen could be considered a lost art.

when i describe how i’ve made…

Most of my mother’s best recipes were lists of ingredients followed by the instruction “bake (or cook) as usual.”

In her youth there were few cookbooks and food magazines and certainly no internet with recipes from everyone, everywhere. A girl learned to cook by helping her mother get dinner together every day, so by the time she grew up and got married and had children of her own, she was well-equipped to get a good meal on the table for her own family.

But it’s not like that today. It’s been generations, in fact, since most women learned to cook at home. We all know why, so it’s not worth getting into here. But because of it people — men and women — who like to cook may no longer come to the task with any hands-on experience. And we’ve become so enamored of food in this country that the simple act of getting dinner on the table seem fraught, to many, with possible mishaps, if not terrors.

Hence: the cookbook, the precise recipe. It certainly can stifle creativity and it seems a shame that so many people need to follow so exactly out of fear or concern that they’ll get it wrong.

On the other hand, even though I grew up a daughter to a good cook who taught me the ins and outs of cooking, I didn’t know much about French cuisine and found Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, with its pages of detailed instructions, a real friend. Like the Julie of movie fame, I made many of the recipes, step by step (I did NOT go through the entire book!)

But after several dinners and several mistakes, I felt confident to expand on my own.

So I agree with Sprinklefingers that a good way to approach cooking if you’re a newbie with little, if any, kitchen experience, is to follow the recipes in a book but all the while consider what you might do differently if you were to change it. Like, what you would do if you liked brown rice better than white or preferred dill to thyme or only liked white meat chicken and you were using a recipe that called for a whole chicken. Or what you would add to the plain old Minestrone soup if you wanted to spice it up. Or whether that recipe for Grilled Cheese with a slice or two of pear and a sprinkle of curry powder would make it a little more interesting.

For me, the detail of Julia Child’s Mastering book helped me to understand the concept of the recipe better, but for someone else, a more laissez-faire, short-on-instruction approach may be more free-ing.

But whichever is best for you, the thing to remember is that cooking should be a pleasure and also, an opportunity for you to improvise to make the food so that it suits your tastes. Don’t let yourself get stuck feeling like a prisoner to a recipe. That makes cooking less enjoyable.

Sprinklefingers posted James Beard’s recipe for Potato and Leek Soup. One of my favorites. It’s one I made often, first, exactly as it was in the book. Then one day I had no leeks, so I substituted onions. Once I didn’t have enough potatoes so I added parsnips. And once I included carrots and peas. And once, I didn’t have potatoes, one of the soup’s main ingredients.

But I did have sweet potatoes, so I used them instead. That’s how, if you start out with a good cookbook and let yourself feel free to improvise you can end up with this recipe for

Sweet Potato Soup:

  • 2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 leeks, cleaned and chopped
  • 4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves (1/2 teaspoon dried thyme)
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 cups half and half cream
  • garnish: chopped chives, pita crisps, croutons, dollop of creme fraiche, etc.


Place the sweet potatoes in a saucepan of lightly salted water and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to medium and cook for about 20 minutes or until tender. Drain and set the potatoes aside in a bowl to cool. Add the butter to the saucepan and cook over medium heat until the butter has melted and looks foamy. Add the leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3-4 minutes, or until softened. Add the sweet potatoes, stock, chives, thyme, ginger and a sprinkle of salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer, cover the pan partially and cook for 20 minutes. Puree the soup in a blender (or with a hand blender) and return the puree to the pan. Stir in the half and half, whisk the ingredients thoroughly until well blended and heat through.  Garnish and serve.

Makes 6-8 servings