Adapted from Jacques Pepin's Garlic Soup recipe from his television show,Essential Pepin. Makes 8 servings
1. Prepare the leeks. For this recipe, you want to use as much of the dark green section as possible. Cut off the root end and trim only the tough, ragged edge of each dark green leaf. Split each leek down the middle lengthwise and slice into 1-inch pieces. Separate the layers and place in a large colander or salad spinner basket. Wash thoroughly, tossing the leeks gently under running water to remove all traces of dirt and grit. Drain well in colander or spin in salad spinner.
2. Trim and peel garlic cloves. Cut large cloves in half. Set aside.
3. Peel potatoes then cut into 1-inch cubes. Set aside.4. Heat large heavy pot or Dutch oven. Add olive oil. When oil is hot, turn heat to medium. Add the leeks. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and stir to combine. Let leeks cook down for 5 to 10 minutes. Leeks will soften and begin to caramelize; creating fond or brown bits on the pan bottom (this is a good thing).
5. Add diced potatoes. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
6. Add garlic and cook until aromatic, about 15 seconds.
7. Add wine or water and stir to deglaze pan. Cook for about 2 minutes to allow alcohol to evaporate. Stir occasionally.
8. Add chicken stock and stir to mix. Raise heat to medium high and bring to a boil. Then, lower heat and partially cover pot. Let boil gently for 30 to 45 minutes.
9. When vegetables are tender, remove pot from heat and let cool for about 30 minutes.
10. (Optional) While the soup is cooling, make ham "croutons." Slice Italian ham into half-inch wide strips and then cut strips into 1-inch long sections. Separate pieces. Heat nonstick skillet on medium. When pan is hot, add the ham. Cook, stirring often, until the ham releases its moisture and the meat is dry and chewy. Remove pan from heat and set aside.
11. Puree cooled vegetable mixture in a blender or food mill or with an immersion/hand blender. Taste soup and adjust salt and pepper.
12. Reheat soup. When hot, taste again and adjust seasonings, if needed. Just before serving, add butter, if desired, and stir to blend. Ladle hot soup into bowls. Garnish with Italian ham croutons. Serve immediately. Makes 8 servings