Years ago I was a student in college, but struggled to pay the tuition. After two years of constantly struggling, I dropped out and took a full time job working for the food service company that ran the campus cafeteria. This meant that I could stay on campus, still have access to the library, and occasionally audit classes.
One of the unplanned benefits of this arrangement was that I got a chance to learn a variety of recipes I hadn’t come across before, plus had the opportunity to learn how to create new ones of my own. I learned an especially important lesson for life, which is that in the workplace if you are ever asked if you can do something, say yes. You can always learn if you are willing to. When I was hired on, it was actually to be a “stockboy” putting away the daily deliveries of dry pantry goods or frozen foods. Within the first few days though I had a moment that probably changed my life more than a number of planned decisions ever did. The morning breakfast cook called in late and the manager came out and asked if I could make breakfast. I didn’t hesitate to say sure, despite the fact that I had almost no professional cooking experience whatsoever. I’d seen how the regular cook made the scrambled eggs in large batches, and pretty much everything else was self explanatory if you read the directions on the boxes they came in. I screwed up quite a bit, including overlooking the eggs, but I made sure to listen to the critiques of the manager (who’s patience was likely driven by the fact that there wasn’t anyone else available at 6 am) and each new pan of food I made that morning was a little better than the last. From that day on, I got to cover other occasional shifts until one day I just got added to the schedule as a full time cook. After a few months, the woman who had the full time job of Baker for the campus kitchen announced she was pregnant and I volunteered to cover. Again, I hadn’t made more than a small handful of dessert recipes, but I was willing to learn.
Overall, I worked in that kitchen for three years. I got to learn not only how to cook, but also learned the hard way how to work with a team, and how to manage time. I learned Excel for the first time, and perhaps most importantly I learned the importance of always being willing to learn. All of that sits in my head then when I start to cook this recipe in particular. It’s my own version of a dish that I first learned working in that kitchen, and like so many others, I change it almost every time. I didn’t create the recipe, but I learned how to make it my own by always being willing to change and learn something new each time.
We’re going to start by cutting up two or three pounds of red potatoes. You can use any variety of potato for this really, but I find the red ones keep a great texture and hold together well. Idaho russets occasionally work for a variation on this recipe that I refer to as “baked potato soup” where I add chives and sour cream, and I allow the potato to fall apart and create a more granular texture and a thicker soup overall.
Once we’ve cut up the potatoes, we’ll put them in a bowl and cover with water. This will keep them from turning brown while we get the rest of the ingredients together. With that done, we’ll dice up three stalks of celery and one medium onion. We’ll also need some carrots. You can dice up three large carrots or do what I did and buy a pound of shredded carrots. I like the final texture of the shredded carrots better when cooked, but you can certainly go with the hand cut instead. I also like to dice up a few garlic cloves, but you can skip those if you want. With these vegetables prepped, we’ll take a pound of bacon and dice that as well and we’re ready to start!
Put a large stock or soup pot on the stove and add your bacon. Turn on medium heat. By starting with a cold pan we’ll give the bacon a chance to slowly render out its fat. Stir regularly and cook until the bacon is completely crisp. Remove the bacon but leave the rendered fat in the pan. Add your celery, onions, garlic and carrots and stir in with the fat and add a healthy sized sprinkle of kosher salt. We don’t want to brown these veggies, so you may need to reduce the heat to medium low. Stir occasionally until the onions are semi-translucent. Add two tablespoons of all purpose flour sprinkled over the veggies and stir until it’s completely absorbed. Cook for a few minutes then add your potatoes followed by two or three cups of low sodium chicken broth. Let this build to a slow simmer. In a large mixing bowl, pour one pound of shredded cheddar cheese and two cups of whole milk. Slowly add some of your soup one ladle full at a time, mixing with each addition. One the cheese looks like it’s starting to melt, pour everything back into the soup pot. Bring to a low boil then reduce to a simmer. Let this cook another 20-30 minutes. Final seasoning to taste, I like to add some fresh cracked black pepper and salt if needed. (what kind of bacon you used will affect this) Serve with the bacon pieces either added back into the pot or you can sprinkle them over each bowl.
I like the fact that this recipe is incredibly easy to change up. Like I said, I rarely cook it the same way each time. If you want a vegetarian option, skip the bacon and use mild olive oil to sweat your vegetables instead of the bacon drippings. I occasionally will add some peppers to the vegetable mix. Corn is great in this too. Like I said before, use some Idaho russets instead of the red potatoes for a thicker and more granular texture and sour cream and chives can give you a more hearty baked potato flavor. You can swap in some low fat buttermilk instead of the whole milk for a tangy flavor change. And of course try different cheeses for different tastes too! Always remember, no matter what recipe you’re looking at, you can always change it around to make it yours. And anytime someone asks you if you can do something give it a try!