Friday night dinners at our home were inviolable.
We rarely ate dinner out the rest of the week, but there were exceptions: good pasta con ceci at the Italian restaurant in the mall where my father drank sambuca with coffee beans floated in it, adventures in the city to find Peking duck.
Friday night dinner at home was an unbreakable rule, though. It was an amazing one in inciting no protest, even as my brother and I grew, and adolescent imperatives began to press against parental constraints.
We didn’t mind being kept in on Shabbat, first because my mother’s cooking is so good — a trained psychologist, she became a full-time personal chef as soon as we left home — we knew that gains in our social status would have come at great cost to the delicacy of our palates. And second, because of a deal struck early: my brother and I couldn’t leave the house on that first, thrilling weekend night, but we had carte blanch to invite the weekend in, in the form of as many friends as we could marshal to join us for dinner.
It was courageous of my mother. The deal meant a constant stream of teenagers at our Friday night table, including many that had never watched anyone summon the Sabbath toward her while saying a prayer over lighting candles, or known that challah was associated with a ritual other than French toast. It meant a lot of mouths to feed, and no advance notice of how many. (I remember the doorbell ringing at 6:30 and jumping up excited that Chris or Adam or Nancy, or all three, had decided to come after all…)
But my mother chose a wise strategy for making meals special and festive, and simultaneously managing to not worry too much over the growing or shrinking numbers at the table. She started most Friday night dinners with the a version of the very rustic, very delicious, very French traditional pureed vegetable soup called “potage.”
Potáge can refer to any thick vegetable soup, but is usually made from vegetables cooked in broth or water, then pureed with a potato until thick and creamy.
My mother’s potages varied by the week and season: there was often a thick, fragrant carrot one, with a sprinkle of fresh thyme cooked in with onions at the beginning. Or it might be sweet and creamy parsnip, topped with elegant little croutons made from stale bread. It might be a nubbed, muted beige soup, made of every root vegetable in the house, and often from the ends of a few—carefully saved parts of carrots, last week’s unused turnips, a single celery root.
In the winter, one of her potages might be almost thick enough to eat with a fork, and in the summer one that was a little thinner, served cool, not hot, and drizzled lightly with yogurt, or have a few tiny cubes of crunchy cucumber, or ice cubes floating in it.
Potage is particularly worth having in your arsenal this time of year. After Thanksgiving, we have so many vegetables in the house that need somewhere to go and a Shabbat meal that needs a beginning.
What’s great about potage is that its vegetables can be raw or cooked or any combination of the two when they go into the pot: if you have leftover roasted carrots, they can be half the total amount of vegetables. If you have the end of mashed butternut squash, it can go in. And you can use whatever vegetables you have. As long as they’re of the same season, they’ll taste good together, and your blender will happily take care of any textural disagreements.
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 small-medium onion or a large leek, cut into slices or roughly chopped
6 cups vegetables: it can be several kinds or one—turnips and carrots, for example, or just carrots, or just cauliflower, or butternut squash and rutabaga. They can be a combination of raw and leftover-cooked, as long as they were just boiled or roasted with only salt and herbs, or a little cinnamon or nutmeg.
1 medium potato, peeled and chopped
A small bundle of parsley stems, thyme sprigs, and a bay leaf
6 cups good meat or vegetable stock, or whatever you have, plus water
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1) Cook the onion in a large heavy-bottomed pot with the olive oil until tender.
2) Add the vegetables, potato, and herb bundle, then cover with liquid. Vegetables should be just covered.
3) Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and taste the broth and vegetables. Season until it all tastes good.
4) Cook until the vegetables and potato are fully cooked and easy to bite through. If you are starting with raw vegetables, about 25-35 minutes.
5) Remove the herb bundle and puree the soup in batches in a blender. For a rustic soup, return to the pot and warm, then serve drizzled with olive oil. For a more elegant one, pour through a fine-mesh sieve into the pot and serve topped with little croutons, and more olive oil if you want. Both versions are delicious topped with freshly ground black pepper.
Tamar Adler is the author of the recently released “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace”. A former editor at Harper’s Magazine, Tamar has cooked at Chez Panisse, and was the founding head chef of Farm 255 in Athens, GA.