I have spent many words in the praise of Elizabeth David, a British food writer who helped Britain rediscover good food in the 60’s. She is still one of the finest examples of how to write about food. Her writing is warm, sensual, essential, elegant.
Elizabeth David had an adventurous life, she traveled the world, from Greece to Italy, from the South of France to India, bringing back to England the charm of these generous foreign cuisines. She also had a fiery temper and sometimes she could sound slightly snobbish. Her firm disposition often emerges in her books with an accent of humour or provocation. Reading her food memoirs I’ve frequently dreamt to be like her, to write like her, to have her sensibility, elegance and charm.
Then I stumbled upon this article on the New York Times and read Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin. I discovered a woman I now admire, a food writer whose books are now on my bed table. She makes me feel normal, both in the way I live my life and in the way I cook. And believe me, this is quite difficult sometimes.
Laurie Colwin is an American novelist, born in Manhattan, who published many short stories and wrote for Gourmet Magazine. Her passion for food writing was second only to the pleasure of sharing that food with friends. She also published two collections of essays, recipes and memories, Home cooking and More home cooking.
There are moments when I question all my skills and my way of cooking. I feel like I am never enough. Not brilliant enough, not up to date enough with the latest trends in food, not profound enough, as my kitchen is not creative enough, refined enough. It’s just home cooking, after all.
Then I open one of her books, and it’s like breathing fresh air. They are light, funny, but in the same time you can find many ironic or deep reflections among easy recipes and warm memories. Laurie Colwin is a woman you would like to call a friend, the one that passes you recipes hand written on a slip of paper, the one that makes you believe you can make it just right even in your tiny and poorly equipped kitchen. She doesn’t take herself too seriously – after all she is writing about food, not saving the world. She is fun, genuine, spontaneous, a burst of pure energy, a real source of inspiration.
She describes herself as a homebody in the first pages of Home Cooking, and I can relate to every single word:
Unlike some people, who love to go out, I love to stay home. (…) I love to eat out, but even more, I love to eat in. The best dinner party I ever went to was a black-tie affair to celebrate a book, catered by the author’s sister. When the food appeared at this party I could scarcely contain my delight. It was home food! (…) The thing about homebodies is that they can usually be found at home. I usually am, and I like to feed people.
Laurie Colwin is the friend whose dinner invitation you would accept at once, as she would serve you home food, simple, unpretentious, unforgettable. You would eat your way to the dessert with a satisfied smile on your face, happy as when you rejoice in your best childhood memories.
In the ’80s, the years of vodka and salmon pasta, of rocket on each plate and shrimp cocktail, when appearing was more important than being, Laurie writes about real, healthy food. She takes account of low budgets and tiny kitchens, she opts for organic food, before it was fashionable, she prefers white meat to the red one, she cooks with seasonal ingredients, she shows with humour her kitchen as big as a closet, where she was able to host a crowd for a party. Laurie is a modern woman, an example to follow, someone who never makes you feel out of place.
It took me some time to reach the point where I start talking about the recipe, but a few days ago I read again a chapter of Home Cooking where Laurie talks about her menu ideas for dinner parties with friends and this soup seamed so appropriate. This is home food, a dish that can easily please your friends for dinner, leaving them with the comforting memory of a steaming hot soup that welcomed them to your table. It will make you happy, too, as you can make in advance, it does not require special attention or special equipment and you can focus instead on the dessert or the main course, while the soup simmers bubbling on the stove.
Potatoes and mushrooms cook on low heat for about an hour, until the soup is creamy. You crumble some pre cooked chestnuts into the soup when it is almost ready to give it even more sweetness and creaminess. Keep a few chestnuts aside, if you manage not to eat them all, and top the soup with chestnuts, parsley and a drizzle of good olive oil before serving it to your friends.
Potato, porcini and chestnut soup
- 1 kg white potatoes
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 2 shallots, finely sliced
- 300 g porcini mushrooms, brushed clean and chopped
- 750 ml slightly salted warm water
- 100 g pre cooked chestnuts*
- Black pepper
- Fresh parsley
- Peel the potatoes and cut them into cubes of about the same size, so they will cook evenly. Cover with extra virgin olive oil the bottom of a pot, add the finely chopped shallots and cook on low flame until soft.
- Add potatoes and mushrooms, stir and cook on low heat for about twenty minutes, until all the mushroom water has been absorbed.
- Cover potatoes and porcini with warm water and cook on low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Now crumble the chestnuts into the pot, leaving aside a few whole chestnuts. Cook for about twenty minutes, stirring now and then, until the potatoes are soft and the soup thick and and creamy.
- Serve the soup topped with crumbled chestnuts, chopped parsley and freshly ground pepper. Finish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil which, warmed by the heat of the soup, will diffuse its grassy smell and make the soup even more appetizing.