The Pacific of coastal Washington seems an entirely different being from the ocean I knew when I lived in Southern California. There, even on January days, I would step off the sandy expanse of beach, leapfrog under the waves going past the break and swim happily away.
Here, sandy beaches are as uncommon as sunny days in winter and the Pacific is cold, dark and mysterious. The earth's brittle tectonic plates lay hidden fathoms beneath the San Juan de Fuca Strait to the south and the Georgia Strait to the northwest.
The Washington coast offers a contrasting beauty, one with impressive cliff drop offs and rocky beaches that disappear and reappear with the changes of the tide. It can be moody and unruly. It is my kind of coast, its primordial energy ever apparent.
The longer I live in the Pacific Northwest the more I seem to want everything from my interactions with people to the food I eat to be as straightforward as the coastal landscape. Less adornment, more of the basics. This place, by its natural, unstripped stance defies those of us who live within it to seek the authentic in all aspects of life.
When it comes to food, the local ingredients and products we have available to us are so stellar that they need few flourishes. The actual flavor of everything from a sliver of roasted beet or parsnip to a morsel of aged Gouda shines through in each bite.
Take this soup. Perfect for the chilliest and dampest day, it's made of five simple ingredients: leeks, potatoes, a small piece of smoked salmon, veggie broth and a splash of milk. It may not sound like much but it is indeed comfort in a bowl. Comfort, which joins together the plainest flavors of the winter soil with the brininess of the sea.
For me, the star here is the hot-smoked salmon, from Lummi Island Wild, which practices reef-net fishing here in our local waters. If you have never heard of reef-net fishing, it is one of the greenest fishing methods, practiced by Native American tribes for centuries. Salmon are caught and immediately placed, live, in tanks to minimize stress and decrease the release of stress hormones. This results in sweeter tasting fish.
Hot-smoked fish as the one I've used in this soup is cooked through during the smoking process then allowed to cool, whereas cold-smoked fish is processed at around room temperature and remains raw.
If you don't have access to a good smoked salmon, try another type of fish such as smoked trout or pollock. Your soup will still be warming and flavorful. More importantly, it will surely soothe you wherever you are located, whether sitting fireside in a cold, rainy climate or by a southerly and sunny shore.
Leek, Potato and Smoked Salmon Soup
2 large leeks
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 lbs. Yukon gold (or other waxy type) potatoes
6 cups vegetable broth
6 oz. hot-smoked salmon or other smoked fish
1/2 cup milk
salt and pepper
handful of chopped chives or green part of scallion
Peel potatoes. Cut into 1/2-inch dice.
Using only the white part of the leek, cut leek in half lengthwise. Slice leek into thin half-moons.
In a medium pot, bring vegetable broth to a simmer. Add the entire piece of salmon and cook for 4 minutes, just enough to warm the fish and allow the broth to take on some of the fish flavor. Remove fish from broth and flake into bite-size pieces.
In a separate pot melt butter over medium-low heat. Add leeks and cook for 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally until leeks have softened but not browned. Add potatoes then warmed broth. Bring to boil and turn to low, allowing mixture to gently simmer until potatoes have soften, approximately 30-40 minutes.
Once potatoes are tender, remove 3 cups of mixture and puree in a blender. You may alternatively use an immersion blender. Return puree to soup pot and add the milk. Add more milk or water to thin soup as needed, making sure not to bring the soup back to a boil once the milk is added.
Add flaked pieces of salmon. Season with salt and pepper.
Serve in bowls garnished with chives or chopped scallions. A drizzle of smoked olive oil is always nice, as is a crusty roll on the side.
Adapted from The River Cottage Fish Book.