Before the polar vortex returned and the morning thermometer read -40 C, I spent some time splitting birch for the wood stove in the kitchen. We live in a house that’s over one hundred years old, and my mom thinks that it was originally assembled from two grain bins bolted together; three steps lead down from those two rooms to the kitchen. Each room has its own temperature and climate, and walking through the house is like entering and departing adjoining countries, each with its own warm or chilly welcome.
On days like that, the big kitchen is not warm unless I keep the fire bustling in the wood stove and have pots on all four burners of the gas stove, located at opposing ends of the kitchen’s long acreage. My upstairs studio can be hot in summer and chilly in winter, with its south-facing wall of glass. So too the sunroom, faced on three sides with glass windows, but busy nonetheless, containing Dave’s office, our dining table, my orchids, herbs, fig tree and desert succulents, but it’s made bearable in deepest winter by a little gas fireplace that the cat loves. My studio and kitchen are my favourite rooms all the same. The warmest room, to my surprise, is often the centrally located living room, where the internal conversations of thousands of books on our shelves generate sparks and fire.
Well, okay, maybe that’s not the real reason, but it sounds better than the pragmatic scientific facts. The facts, just the facts, are hot air rising from the kitchen up those three steps, the living room’s high number of doorways – five – and the presence of a bamboo-bladed ceiling fan that circulates air from one room to the next. And the sunlight. The living room too faces south, and on high winter afternoons, curling up with a book in the big armchair while the sunlight induces a snooze is a brilliant way to get through the cold snap.
Of course another good way to survive the cold is to cook. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the kitchen, and I recently asked Dave to give me a list of what he’d like to eat. Generous man, he immediately asked why. “I love all your cooking, sweetie,” he said. “I want to stay out of the rut,” I said. “If I keep track of what I’ve made and you give me that list, I’ll be less likely to repeat myself.”
This of course triggered a long conversation about the joy of leftovers and of eating favourite dishes regularly. But the truth is that every cook falls into a rut. Having a list of ideas to offset creative dry spells, as I used to when I ran my Calgary restaurant several lifetimes ago, is like walking from one room into another, a pandemic-sized metaphor for travel. Dave asks for Japanese ramen and curry bread, pad thai, Korean fried chicken, a swathe of Italian pasta, French classics like duck confit, bouillabaisse, and leek and potato soup. But he asks for the cold version – vichyssoise – ignoring the fact that leek and potato soup appears regularly on our table, albeit in disguise. Want North African chickpea soup? Add chickpeas, cumin, ginger, paprika, cilantro, preserved lemon. Want cheese and cauliflower? Yep, stir ‘em in. Want clam chowder? You got it. Coconut curry? Add coconut cream, fish sauce and kaffir lime leaves, maybe a bit of peanut butter.
Leek and potato soup is the mother soup of all soups. And on this bitterly cold day, I want all the calories I can cram into the pot, so I add grated cheese, chopped roasted cauliflower, leftover roast chicken, and a drizzle of cream to the pot. Antidote to the polar vortex? Maybe not. But it fuels us, and brings pleasure to a bitter day. First we eat, then we plan a post-pandemic vacation somewhere warm, with bamboo fans and sand.
dee’s Mother Soup
French cooks are used to the idea of “mother sauces”, basic sauces that are embellished with a host of ingredients, changing names as they change their stature. This soup works the same way – make it plain or add what embellishments you fancy. I use a hand-held immersion wand to puree half the soup, relying on the potatoes to serve as self-contained thickening agent.
butter or oil for the pan
1 head garlic, minced
1 leek or onion, minced
1 tsp. dried thyme
½ cup white wine (optional)
4-6 potatoes, cubed
6-8 cups chicken stock
salt and pepper to taste
cream to taste
Heat the oil or butter in a heavy pot, add the garlic and sauté until fragrant but not coloured. Add the leek or onion and sauté until tender. Add the thyme and wine, then stir in the potatoes, stock and seasoning. Cover and simmer until tender. Puree half the soup to thicken it. Garnish as preferred.