Elevating potato soup to such a celestial level was the work of a cook who understands her ingredients and how elements such as moisture and heat behave.
With Ina Garten, the proof was in the potato soup
I know my tastes aren't always reliable. For starters, I actually loved Timothy Dalton as James Bond. Watching Cher's profound rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl in 1999 makes me cry, every time. And I think full-fat cottage cheese with hot sauce is a grossly underrated breakfast food.
But trust me when I say that, last weekend, I had the best soup of my life. It was at the home of my dear friends, Naser and Jeff. Jeff is a diehard Ina Garten fan and when he invited us over for "Ina's leek and potato soup", I made a fatalistic mental note to eat a Bologna sandwich before dinner. Experience has taught me not to show up hungry for potato soup. It's one of the hardest things to make interesting because people are often unwilling to add enough goodness to make it so. And by "goodness" I mean the two greatest things on the planet: salt and fat. You need a lot of flavour to animate a potato.
Despite abysmal expectations, Jeff's version of the soup blew me away. It was velvety but not uniformly so, and bobbing under a crisp tangle of fried shallots were roasted potatoes and caramelised leeks, blended with a flurry of wilted arugula. Jeff had swirled in a respectable amount of cream and crème fraîche, sharpened the soup with aged Parmesan and served it with hot garlic bread for dunking. What makes the soup so good is the roasting process; scorched sugars in the leeks and potatoes concentrate into the gooey brown fond that sticks to the pan. This, the oomph factor, gets scraped into boiling chicken stock, making the base for the soup. It's magnificent.
It's also classic Garten, whose penchant for gussying up classic French food with Hamptonian panache has never appealed to me. I can't explain it, but I get embarrassed when I watch her show, or even say its name: The Barefoot Contessa. It's similar to the discomfort I get watching overly saccharine proclamations of love in cinema and reading phrases in print that no self-aware person would actually say out loud, such as "this potato soup is so good it should be arrested!" Cringe, cringe and cringe.
My dad was firmly in Jeff's camp. "How can you not love that woman?" he asked me one day while watching her show. Like many others, he found her delightful. "She has such a pleasant face," he pointed out.
"I guess because I'm a terrible person," I said.
Now that I've tasted this soup, I think I might love her, too.
At the very least, I certainly respect her, and my appreciation for Garten's approach to the soup is underscored by my attraction to her methodology. Whether a dish is authentic to its history or authentic to its creator isn't important to me. For example, I adore Julia Child, and she was the ultimate presenter and master of tradition.
My hits outnumber my misses, but there are few home runs, and most of my own recipes are works in progress. But a break with tradition has also allowed for the freedom to improvise. Once people got comfortable with breaking tradition was the beginning of the rock star age of cooking. Elevating potato soup to such a celestial level was the work of a cook who understands her ingredients and how elements such as moisture and heat behave. And someone who seems to understand just what people really want to eat.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico