Well, you could say that I didn’t quite start the New Year off in the healthiest of ways, but nevertheless, I chose to make myself a pot of good old-fashioned hearty potato soup to kick things off in 2013. I had been craving this delicious concoction for months, and as I returned to DC armed with newly claimed Christmas gifts, it seemed like the perfect time to indulge. I must have been a really good little lady this year, as I was showered with all of the kitchen utensils I covet the most. If that’s a sin, well then so be it. I received a long awaited cast iron pot, a beautiful Le Creuset cast iron griddle in my color of choice (Caribbean) with matching spatulas (swoon), a good stock pot, a state-of-the-art Cuisinart immersion blender, and a bevy of additional kitchen tools that left me breathless. It was truly a dream come true and I was so thankful to my family for indulging me in my obsession with all things kitchen tool related.

With all that said, you can imagine my excitement to get back in the kitchen at my humble abode in Georgetown. I opted to stay in for New Year’s this year and take it easy, so figured with all of that free time, and my roommates still on their holiday travels, that I had all the room I needed to sprawl out and get my hands dirty without fear of being a kitchen space-hog for a day. One of my resolutions for this year on my blog is to not only post amazing recipes and tips that I hear about or try, but to actually embark on creating my own recipes and educating my readers on the joy of what I like to call ‘Pinch Cooking.’ The reason being, this is the school of cooking I was raised with. My Mom would lord over an array of steaming pots and pans, adding a dash of this, a pinch of that, simultaneously stirring and chopping as if she had 15 arms, and it miraculously all came out tasting delicious and uncannily well timed to perfection.

Anyhow, I was pleasantly tasked with choosing what my first dish would be that would allow me to utilize all of my new kitchen toys…and it had to be something decadent as a last hurrah before hitting the old diet bandwagon for the New Year. I landed on potato soup. Now, I am not sure who all remembers the Bennigan’s restaurant chain, but I ADORED their baked potato soup. As you well know, if you are indeed familiar with this chain of Irish-inspired pub restaurants, most have gone belly up. So, I set out to scour the Internet to find the perfect replication of their recipe. Easier said than done. There must be a bajillion recipes and variations of this soup floating around online, so I culled them carefully and arrived at my own version that uses a standard base and adds a little flavor from the best that I found. The best part is, I was able to buy all of the ingredients from my local corner shops, Sara’s Market and Scheele’s, and of course the wonderful Stachowski’s Market down the street. I am convinced that it is a clandestine act of divine influence that this wonderful shop opened a mere two blocks away from my apartment. I also really love when I can shop local…makes me feel so provincial and supportive of the little guys.

This soup is creamy and your basic heart attack in a bowl, but if you are going to indulge in potato soup, may as well go all out on the rare occasion that you do. This soup also freezes nicely, I might add. I recommend buying some of the Ziploc 16 oz. twist-top containers, as they are good at keeping an airtight seal and perfectly portion your soup for that later date when you have another craving to satisfy. I will also sometimes place a little piece of wax paper on top before sealing. This helps to fight that nasty freezer burn from creeping in and destroying your creations. And if you really want to get fancy, before you seal the containers, sprinkle your toppings of fresh grated cheddar, chopped bacon and green onion slivers on top to get the whole restaurant-worthy experience when you reheat.

So, here we go! My first crack at an intuitive cooking recipe. Thanks to Tasty Kitchen Blog for some of these photos. I missed photographing a few steps because I was in a zone, so implemented a few of her pics here to do the trick, as they are similar.

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First and foremost, take three, clean large baking potatoes (Russets work well), or four medium sized, and place them in an oven preheated to 425° F. Plan to cook these for around 45 minutes until soft in the middle when poked with fork down the center. These can cook while you are prepping the other ingredients.

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I like to start out by cooking the bacon first because it gives the house a heavenly aroma, and tends to be the messiest part. I used the good old Oscar Meyer applewood smoked variety, center cut. You can use whichever brand suits your fancy, or even turkey bacon if you like. I recommend the real deal because once the bacon is cooked, we are going to use a bit of that bacon grease to add flavor to the soup. Trust me, it’s amazing. When cooking the bacon, you want to leave some a little on the less well done side, as this will allow the flavor to leach out and give your soup a nice smoky flavor.

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Set the cooked bacon aside to cool and drain on a bed of paper towels. Notice that the bacon is still only lightly cooked on the edge. This is perfect for soup!

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Now that the bacon is done, the first step is to cut some onions. Don’t cry, they will make your soup taste delicious! You will need one large yellow onion, peeled. I use a mandolin to get my onions cut super thin for sautéing and to speed up the cutting process, but this can also be done by hand or with a food processor if you have one handy.

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Next, drop the sliced onion into your cast iron pot and begin to sauté on a low heat setting. Add some seasoning for flavor. I usually douse finely grated pepper on them and a bit of Kosher salt to help get the onions sweating. I then add about a half to a whole stick of unsalted butter. Cover and let them sweat it out, mixing every so often. This usually takes around 15 minutes, or until the butter is nice and melted and the onions are soft. I also added in just a bit of the bacon grease for flavor. Don’t use too much, but maybe a Tablespoon or so.

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Next, remove the onion mixture from the pot using tongs and drop them into the blender. DO NOT clean the pan, just leave the remainder of the liquid in the bottom of the pan for a later step. For the blending process, I used 2% milk and a little chicken broth to help liquidize and keep the blender running smoothly. You just need enough so that the mixture is moving easily and the onions are being broken down to a liquid mixture as pictured here. This will give your soup flavor, but makes it so that you aren’t left chewing on any soggy onions as you eat. Set this aside for now.

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Next, take 4-5 large Russet potatoes and peel the skins off and discard them. Slice the peeled potatoes into even halves or quarters and place in a large pot with enough water to cover the potatoes completely. Add a dash of table salt (Morton’s) and bring to a boil. You want to par boil these, meaning you don’t want to cook them too completely. This will help them from disintegrating while the soup is cooking, so leave them slightly firm in the center. you can check these with a fork. I usually remove them from the heat when the water begins to boil.

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As you can see here, the center isn’t fully cooked through. This is how you want them to look so they will have room to cook down in the soup.

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Next, chop the slightly boiled potatoes into even pieces and set in a bowl.

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Now that you have the potatoes done, grab those golden, cooled bacon slices and chop them into small pieces. Reserve a few pieces and crisp them up to use as a topping on the finished soup.

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Next, grab your fresh leeks or green onions and chop those into fine slices as well. I found these gorgeous beauties at Stachowski’s Market and was pumped by the fact that they had these on hand, and that they were of such great quality.

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Once chopped, add both the bacon and these leeks or  scallions to the pot that you cooked your onion mixture in. Mix them all together for a flavor packed start to your soup.

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Now, remember those baked potatoes in the oven? Once they are done cooking and have had a chance to cool, you want to chop these into small pieces, leaving the skin on, and add them to the pot with the bacon and scallion.

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Now, add in your chopped, par-boiled potatoes, your onion puree, about 1-1/2 cups of 2% milk, the remainder of the chicken broth that wasn’t used in pureeing the onion mixture (total of two 32fl oz containers), and a package of good, thick, smoked deli ham chopped into small pieces. Mix together, cover and let this simmer on a low heat, stirring every 20 minutes or so for about a half an hour. Give it time to let all of those wonderful flavors meld together.

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Once the soup has been simmering for a half an hour or so, add a package of Philadelphia 1/3 fat cream cheese and mix in until it is melted and creamy. Now let simmer for about 20 minutes and voila, you are ready to eat!

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Serve it up piping hot topped with reserved bacon pieces, a grated sharp cheddar cheese, and scallion bits. You really can’t go wrong!

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Now dig in!

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