I had scant awareness of family meal before becoming a cook. When I worked in a pizza joint in high school there was no such thing as family meal. I’m not certain that anyone working knew about the concept. We could make ourselves iceberg lettuce salads, or eat the “mess up” pizzas that the management didn’t pitch. Or we could buy our dinner, something the servers often did and no one else would.
On the other end of the family meal continuum are those you see in movies about fancy restaurants. There, everyone- cooks, servers, dishwashers- sits down before service. It’s served family style and there’s wine involved. It’s sophisticated and elegant and elastic. Whenever I see those films I dream of their family meals.
Family meal where I work is something different. It happens during service. We all eat standing up, clustered around our chest freezer. Front of the house eats in shifts. Back of the house eats between tickets. And the food is wildly variable. There are days we need to use up those luxury products and so we end up eating foie gras pancakes. On the other hand I’ve eaten burgers and gyros more times than I can count. Some times it’s collaborative, with everyone creating a component. Other times one person takes charge and spends most of their free time pulling it together.
Some meals are excellent. Homemade pasta, ramen, and pizza have all graced our chest freezer. Other day we end up devouring scrambled eggs and leftover biscuits because we didn’t plan ahead. And some meals barely get eaten. A bad family meal is unfortunate, but the only unforgivable family meal is an omitted one. Not feeding your people is one of the rudest things possible in restaurant.
I’ve made an absurd amount of salads for family meal- they’re delicious, adaptable, and I am always happy to eat a salad. But family meals offers a challenge to step out of my comfort zone and use up product that I don’t often turn to.
This potato chowder is loosely inspired by a recent family meal. We had a large amount of cauliflower scraps and gallons of very fatty smoked pork broth that both needed use, and I paired them up in a soup. And it was fine. I wasn’t happy with it but we have to feed our people. But even unfortunate meals can grow into good ones, if only the idea of them. Some times good things can come from mistakes.
Here, you gently cook celery and onions until they’ve softened and just started to take on color. Dried sage and smoked paprika add depth and a faint hint of smokiness. Vegetable stock is less heavy and fatty than pork broth, and allows the creamy softness of potato to shine. Some heavy cream gives the soup body, and watercress brings a bright, peppery bite. It’s the kind of soup I like to eat as winter starts to break- warm but not heavy, comforting but fresh.
Creamy Potato Chowder with Watercress
If you can’t find watercress, roughly chopped spinach would be a fine substitute. I would add a bit more pepper in that case.
2 tablespoons butter
3 stalks celery, diced
1 small onion, diced
1 tablespoon dried sage
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 pounds yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced
8 cups vegetable broth
1 cup heavy cream
a good handful of cleaned and roughly chopped watercress
scallions, finely sliced on the bias
In a large soup pan melt the butter over medium-low heat. When the butter is frothing, add the celery and onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and starting to take on some color, about 8 minutes. Add the sage, paprika, white pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt. Cook for a minute, until the spices are fragrant. Add the potatoes, and stir to coat. Add the vegetable broth, scrapping the bottom with a wooden spoon as you pour the vegetable broth in, and bring to a boil. Reduce the soup to a simmer, then simmer for 30 minutes, until the potatoes are almost falling apart.
Use an immersion blender to blend the soup to a chunky-creamy consistency or an upright blender to puree half of the soup. Stir in the cream, and taste for seasonings. Add more salt and pepper as necessary. Stir the watercress into the warm soup.
To serve, top with oyster crackers, watercress, and scallions. Eat warm.