Tuesday, February 3, 2009

when I smell bacon, I can do anything

I will never be a vegetarian. I might cut waaaaaay back on the meat to help shut down Big Food (read this book), but I will always permit myself to enjoy a bit of the pig now and then. When I eat it, I feel calm. I'm safe. I'm young. And more importantly, I'm enjoying the heck out of my food.

Potato soup has many incarnations, and this Potato-Cheese Soup with Bacon is a combo of two favorite soup memories of mine (potato-cheese soup at the late-twentieth-century cas-din chain, "The Black-Eyed Pea," and a hearty bacon-potato soup made by one J. Meyer for a winter birthday last year). I got to thinking about the warming, cozying qualities of potato soup last week, when we had a cold spell (below 40!) in New Orleans. Brrrrr. Anyway, it was time to get to work.

Recreating soups I've eaten at restaurants or other gatherings is a favorite activity of mine, but I'd never attempted to make one that was so far back in my memory. I ate that soup at the Black-Eyed Pea when I was, let's say, 12. We'd recently moved to the Tulsa area. We're talking 1984. But after smelling the cooking bacon (I can do anything when I smell that, seriously), I remembered something else about that soup, by way of another potato memory. I ate some marvelous potato salad at Jason's Deli, about 6 years ago, wherein I tasted a familiar tang--a grassiness, if you will--that I had only ever experienced at...The Black-Eyed Pea! But this time, I was old enough, and obsessed with food enough, to know what the kicker was. Dill. Sweet, soft, licorice-y dill. I believe the potatoes of the world go best with--and indeed, deserve--the fresh featheriness of said herb. Try it. You will believe.

The bacon contributes a subtle undertone to the soup because the vegetables are cooked in its pan bits, but really dresses up the finished bowl as a crunchy garnish. The dill and bacon do not fight. They play surprisingly well together.

Potato-Cheese Soup with Bacon
  • 6 slices bacon
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 medium or large carrots, diced small
  • 2 stalks celery, diced small
  • 3 pounds red potatoes, peeled and diced (you can leave some pieces pretty big, because the smaller pieces will disintegrate into the soup)
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 2 to 3 cups milk
  • 8 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh dill
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • optional: a few dashes of something hot, like Tabasco
  1. Cook the bacon slices in a medium soup pot (6 or 8 quarts will work) over medium heat, until slightly crispy. Set aside and drain all but 1 tablespoon of drippings from the pot. Don't clean out the browned bits.
  2. In the same pot with the bacon-y bits, saute the onion, carrot, and celery over medium heat until tender, about 10 minutes. The mixture should be starting to dry out by then.
  3. Add the stock and chopped potatoes. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low simmer, and simmer covered for about 30 minutes, until the potatoes are starting to fall apart into the stock.
  4. Turn off the heat, stir in the milk, and add the cheese and dill.
  5. Turn the heat back on to the lowest or next-to-lowest setting--you don't want to scorch the milk, but you want the cheese to heat up so you can tell what's up with the seasonings.
  6. Add salt and pepper to taste (and optional hot thing). I started with about 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 teaspoon of black pepper, and went from there.
  7. Crumble the reserved bacon and use it to top each serving.

Serves 8.

Note: We had this with a crunchy salad: baby greens, chopped pears, toasted pecans, and some croutons made from rosemary bread. Toss that with a balsamic vinaigrette, and you're set.