Wednesday, 28 February 2024

Vichyssoise: A history, plus new variations

I hate to start the column off on a negative note, but you aren’t pronouncing it right. The pronunciation is actually or “Vee SHEE swahzz” not the more pretentious and/or genteel “Vish-EE-swah” (the “e” after the “s” signifies the “z” sound). Vichyssoise is as American as fortune cookies (both of which are associated with foreign countries but were actually invented in America).

The origins of this cold soup are disputed. Although evidence shows some version of leek and potato soup has been in existence since at least the 1800s, the evolution of the cold, pureed version has a couple of claimants to its creation.

The version that most people put faith in is that it was created in 1917 by Chef Louis Diat at the Ritz-Carlton in New York. This ascription, although the most popular and with the most “facts,” has been found full of holes by the “Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink.” So at best the story is anecdotal, and most likely the story was reverse engineered to fit the situation like a Nostradamus quatrain.

The only thing we know of for sure is that the cold pureed version first appeared in the U.S. during the early 20th century. The name Vichyssoise was changed to “Crème Gauloise Glacee” for a short time after World War II since the soup was named after the town of Vichy, France. This town had collaborated with the Nazis during the war and Americans love to punish the French by renaming food; remember “Freedom Fries”?

Most versions of this soup contain chicken stock and massive amounts of cream. In order to make this soup a little healthier and available to my vegan readers, the following recipe of the popular summer soup is one I adapted myself. Since I couldn’t find soy or vegan cream anywhere locally, I decided to make my own with silken tofu and soy milk: three-quarters of a cup of silken tofu, one-quarter of a cup of soy milk, 2 teaspoons white sugar and a pinch of salt. Put it all in a jar and shake until smooth (about one minute). You end up with a reasonable replacement for cream.

Even non-vegetarians will notice that after eating true vichyssoise your mouth has a slimy feeling from the massive amount of fat from the cream. This recipe avoids that fatty consistency while providing the body the soup needs. Vichyssoise served with a dollop of sour cream is fantastic, but in all of my experimenting with silken tofu, vinegar, lemons and sugar I couldn’t come up with a sour cream substitute ... sorry, but I am still trying.

The good news is while developing this recipe (don’t even ask about the version made with coconut milk) I broke my stand blender, so I get to go shopping for a new blender!

Unfortunately, cooking potatoes and leeks renders them about as nutritious as cardboard, but you at least will be getting a good amount of fiber and a tasty cool soup. You can have some fun and jazz vichyssoise up by adding little things here and there like crab, lobster, asparagus and cucumbers; I’ve even seen recipes with oysters. It also makes a great hors d’ouvres by serving it in shot glasses. This recipe will serve four.

Vegan Vichyssoise

3 Idaho baking-type potatoes

3 leeks (white and light green parts only)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 and a half cups soy milk

1 cup soy cream (see above)

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

Salt to taste

Chopped chives for garnish

Peel and slice the potatoes and boil them in slightly salted water. Meanwhile cut the roots off of the leeks and cut the leaves off where the leaves start to split away. Split them lengthwise and wash them (I like to put them in a gallon ziptop bag with several cups of cold water and then shake like a salsa dancer); after a minute remove the leeks and dump the sandy water on the houseplants. Chop the leeks into a medium dice (approximately one inch squares). Heat the olive oil to medium in a frying pan and add the leeks. The purpose is to sweat the leeks, but not brown them or give them any color. Cook them until slightly translucent.

When the potatoes are cooked, drain in a colander and then return to the pot they were boiled in. Add the leeks, soy cream, soy milk and white pepper. Stir for a minute to combine, then blend with a stick blender (you can also ladle mixture into a regular stand blender). When it has been blended mostly smooth, process soup through a food mill, chinoise or strainer. The objective is to remove any leek fibers and have a perfectly smooth soup. Add salt and white pepper to taste, and then chill. Serve topped with the chives.

Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community.


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