So, like, it snowed this weekend. Maybe you noticed. Nothing like a week's worth of
sub-freezing weather and then half a foot of snow to create a deep existential need for soothing, super-rich comfort food.
I wasn't sure what to make -- all kinds of starchy, lipid-laden candidates sprang to mind: Macaroni and cheese. Tamale pie. Biscuits and gravy. Whatever the dish, though, I was going to have to go food shopping -- I've been working a lot recently and the cupboards at our house are getting pretty bare.
I had missed the Waverly farmer's market on Saturday, alas, and was feeling a tad bummed about having to rely on supermarket supplies for Project Comfort Food. Then my best friend Heather suggested we take a stroll through Mill Valley General Store in Remington -- or, as she calls it, "the farmers market quickie mart." (more here at Mill Valley General Store).
Mill Valley, in case you've never been there, has all kinds of great gardening supplies, which you'll be needing sooner than you think, plus food from local/organic/ sustainably farmed vendors: Trickling Springs creamery, Tuscarora Organic Co-op (veggies), Whiskey Island Pirate spices, Zeke's coffee. Next best thing to the farmer's market, absolutely, and they're open four days a week, hallelujah!
And thus it was decided: I'd troll Mill Valley for ingredients, and whatever presented itself would inspire the dish I'd make.
Produce pickings were somewhat slim, it being deep winter and all. Most of the options were storage-hardy items like turnips, apples and Jerusalem artichokes, but then that is absolutely the appropriate kind of thing to be eating right now. The wheels in my brain started turning when I got a look at Tuscarora's beautiful organic potatoes, and I decided to make Brass Parrot Baked Potato Soup.
This is one of those perennial semi-famous recipes that gets constantly reprinted in Southern Living collections and local newspaper food sections -- the Brass Parrot is an actual restaurant in Texas and their contribution to the world is this soup. Really, it's nothing earth-shattering; it's just basic potato soup. However, I'm sentimentally fond of the recipe because the first time I cooked it, about 12 years ago, was the very first time I ever made a roux.
It seemed so magical to me then, and honestly it still does: when you melt butter in a pan and then add some flour, brown it a little while, and then slowly whisk in some milk, it will get thick! No matter how rotten a day I have had out there in the world I can come home and perform this reliable kitchen miracle. I find it deeply reassuring.
You can find the classic B.P. recipe all over the 'net. Here is the version I made, with changes dictated partly by my taste and partly by what Mill Valley had to sell me on Saturday. My main changes were to use half bacon fat and half butter, rather than all butter, for the roux; to use cheddar instead of the called-for American cheese, and to use cream instead of milk. (Clearly this soup is not for the faint of fat).
I bought all the central ingredients at Mill Valley. Flour, homemade chicken stock, and organic, locally pasture-raised bacon and butter I had at home, and chives -- I did have to get those at the grocery store. I thought about skipping the chives in the name of making a truly locally-sourced concoction, but this soup lives or dies by its garnishes and chives are essential to elevating it from basic potato soup to really really good potato soup.
Here's a photo of the very last bowl, dinner for our fantastic babysitter Miss Alyssa on Monday night. Having just served it to her and then run out the door, I called from the road to say, "Stop eating! Take a picture first!" Because she is the greatest babysitter of all time, she obliged me. So, potato soup, garnished with bacon, chives and lots of black pepper, one bite gone.
Baltimore Parrot Baked Potato Soup
6 starchy potatoes, peeled and diced (Tuscarora Organic Co-op)
6 cups chicken stock (Springfield Farm)
1.5 teaspoons white pepper (black is ok if you don't have white)
1/2 lb cheddar cheese, shredded (Trickling Springs)
1 cup flour
4 tablespoons butter (I get mine from an Amish grass farmer)
2 cups cream or milk (I used Trickling Springs heavy cream)
1 lb uncured bacon (Amish grass farmer)
chives (Superfresh, sigh)
1.) Fry up the bacon. You don't have to use a whole pound; basically, you want to render the fat for the roux and have some crispy bacon to crumble on the soup for garnish. The rest is to snack on while you cook. I defy you not to eat it.
2.) In large soup pot, bring stock to boil. Add potatoes and white pepper, salt if your stock is unsalted. Cook potatoes until about halfway done.
3.) Drain all but 4 tablespoons of the bacon fat and save for some other delicious application. Return pan to medium heat and add 4 tablespoons butter. Once butter and lard are melted together, slowly whisk in flour a little at a time until roux forms. Cook roux about three minutes, until lightly brown and raw flour taste has faded.
4.) Over medium heat, add roux to potatoes and stock a little at a time, whisking gently but thoroughly each time. Add cream and cheese, again stirring thoroughly but gently, and bring to a simmer. Keep an eye on this stage and stir often so the bottom doesn't scorch. Once at simmer, lower heat to extremely low, cover, and cook 15 minutes.
5.) Serve! Garnish with crumbled bacon, chopped chives, lots of black pepper, and more cheese if you like. Some people add sour cream as a garnish but I find this to be gilding the lily.