Pike Place Market is busy, in spite of the stinging, sideways rain. It’s different here in the winter, without the throngs of tourists from the cruise ships. Less crowded, more intimate somehow. Middle-aged ladies wander down the line of shops pointing to various items, leaning their heads together and laughing in the way of old friends. Couples slowly push strollers, blocking the flow of pedestrians. Girls cling, giggling, to the tattooed arms of strutting gamecock boyfriends. Buskers play and sing their hearts out for a pile of dollar bills in their guitar case.
I am immersed in the kaleidoscope of colors and sounds and smells. Jewelry, hand painted silk scarves, pottery. Vendors sit next to their wares eating takeout lunch or chatting with each other. The Hmong flower vendors have dried flowers right now, not the profusion of fresh flowers that will start in a few months. Then there are the produce stores, with their pyramids of impossibly bright fruits and vegetables. An aproned young man stands out front offering slices of apple from the tip of his paring knife. I pass the fish market, the sweet ocean scent of fresh seafood underlined by the more pungent smell of fish guts hosed off of concrete. My nose picks out a waft of BBQ pork from the Chinese restaurant.
I turn the corner and walk into the relative quiet of DeLaurenti Specialty Food & Wine. I wander the store, intrigued by the olive oil, pausing thoughtfully in front of the capers, and standing dreamily for a long moment in the pasta section. Finally, I focus. I’ve come for one item: chestnut puree. I could probably get it at the Central Market, which is much closer to home, and undeniably more convenient. But why not have a Sunday ramble through the market? I wander back the way I came, can of chestnut puree in hand.
Ever since my friend Christie and I shared an unforgettable bowl of mushroom-chestnut cream soup at Voila Bistrot last fall, I’ve had it in the back of my mind to reproduce it at home. Quarts and quarts of it. Every now and then I’ll do an internet search for recipes, but mushroom-chestnut soup recipes that look similar to what I have in mind are conspicuous by their absence. I did find a few ideas, and I knew I wanted chestnuts, mushrooms, crème fraiche, maybe sherry…after that, things got a little fuzzy–but in the end, soup is soup, right? I’ll start with some stock and things will develop.
The first batch is so-so. It tastes okay, but it’s not what I’m after. Too thick, too creamy, too earthy with sherry and chestnut. And the color is unfortunately kaka-like. Edible, but undeniably disappointing.
I ponder for a few days, reaching for my sense-memory of the original soup. I find myself muttering abstractedly at odd moments: “…maybe white wine instead of sherry…” or “…chicken stock, not vegetable…” I go back to my faithful gold standard of soups, Julia Child’s Cream of Leek and Potato Soup, and start rebuilding from the foundation up.
I chop and sauté and stir and puree. I taste, and add half and half one cautious dribble at a time. And this time the soup is an unqualified success. Smooth, savory, with that bright, indefinable tang of umami, I want to eat a couple of quarts of it right away.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this soup rocks.
Mushroom Chestnut Soup with Crème Fraiche
- ½ oz dried porcini mushrooms
- 4 shallots, diced
- 2 leeks, sliced
- ½ cup diced onion
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 cups sliced Crimini mushrooms
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 4 cups chicken stock
- 2 cups white wine
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 cups peeled and roughly chopped potatoes
- 1/3 cup unsweetened chestnut puree
- ¼ cup half and half
- crème fraiche
Soak dried porcini mushrooms in hot water for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, fry onions, shallots, and leeks in butter and olive oil until soft. Add garlic, Crimini mushrooms and thyme. Drain and rinse the porcini mushrooms, chop, and add to pan. Continue cooking about 5 more minutes.
In a stockpot, bring chicken stock and wine to a boil. Add salt, onion/mushroom mixture, chestnut puree, and potatoes. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 20-30 minutes until the potatoes are tender.
Puree with immersion blender or in food processor. Whisk in cream and reheat before serving. Top each serving with a dollop of crème fraiche.
(Makes 4-6 servings)