- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Although the holidays are almost finished, my husband and I still want to have a few friends over before regular routines are back in full force. Nothing fancy; just a simple soup-and-salad supper is what I have in mind.

For the main course, I plan to serve a potage that is as easy as 1-2-3 to assemble and satisfying enough to anchor a light meal. The recipe is based on an amazing soup I tasted this year in a small French bistro. Toasted bread croutons were placed in the bottom of a bowl, then a creamy white soup scented beautifully with Parmesan cheese was poured in, and a garnish of crispy bacon was sprinkled on top. I failed to get our waiter to divulge the secrets of how this dish was prepared, but after several attempts, I came up with a version close to the original.

For my interpretation, I sauteed sliced shallots and diced potatoes in butter and oil, then simmered them in chicken stock and milk for about 15 minutes. Then I pureed this mixture and whisked in a generous amount of grated Parmesan.

I changed the garnishes slightly, adorning bowls of this warm, creamy soup with toasted bread crumbs, crispy bits of sauteed prosciutto and a sprinkling of parsley.

I plan to pair this soup with a salad made with seasonal greens (baby spinach or romaine would work particularly well) and sliced mushrooms, all tossed in lemon juice and olive oil. A crusty baguette will round out the menu, and some of those remaining holiday cookies will be perfect for dessert.

Parmesan soup with prosciutto and toasted bread crumbs

Makes 4 servings.

1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 cups chopped shallots (about 1/2 pound or 5 large shallots)

5/8 pound Yukon Gold or russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

2 1/4 to 2 1/2 cups chicken stock

2 1/4 to 2 1/2 cups whole milk

3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (Parmigiana Reggiano is best), plus 2 tablespoons extra for garnish

Generous pinch (1/16 teaspoon) cayenne pepper

Kosher salt

Garnish:

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 1/2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto cut into strips about 3 inches long by 1/4 inch wide

3/4 cup coarse fresh bread crumbs

1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

For soup, heat butter and oil in a large, heavy saucepan set over medium heat. When hot, add shallots and cook, stirring, until softened and translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Add potatoes and garlic, and cook and stir 1 minute more. Add 2 1/4 cups each stock and milk, and bring mixture to a simmer. Reduce heat and cook at a simmer until potatoes and shallots are tender, about 15 minutes. Pour mixture into a blender or food processor and puree until it reaches a smooth consistency.

Return the pureed mixture to the pan. Gradually whisk in 3/4 cup cheese and stir until it has melted. Remove pan from heat and whisk in cayenne pepper. Taste and season with salt. If you use low-sodium stock, you’ll need 1 teaspoon or more salt. If soup is too thick, stir in 1/4 cup each additional stock and milk. (Soup can be prepared 1 day ahead; cool, cover and refrigerate. Reheat over medium heat, stirring.)

For garnishes, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil until hot in a medium, heavy skillet set over medium heat. Add prosciutto and saute, turning often, until crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels. To the same skillet set over medium heat, add 1 tablespoon more olive oil. When hot, add bread crumbs and cook, tossing constantly, until golden and crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove crumbs to a plate. (Prosciutto and crumbs can be prepared 4 hours ahead; leave uncovered at cool room temperature.)

Ladle soup into 4 soup bowls and sprinkle each serving with some Parmesan, prosciutto, bread crumbs and parsley.

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