The first weeks of spring are prime time for the onion family. Green onions, spring onions, ramps and garlic are all coming in right now. And so is an oft-overlooked member of the onion family, the leek. And as Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Schola Cooking School will confirm, this is actually a very good ingredient to work with.
Leeks are actually a pretty dramatic looking vegetable. Their long deep green leaves culminate in a snowy white bulb, bearded with a little fringe of roots.
They are the national symbol of Wales, where the leek has been honored for centuries. On St. David's Day, the leek is brandished along with it's sorta-kinda look-alike the daffodil.
If you're buying leeks for the kitchen, here's one indispensible piece of advice: trim off the tops, leaving about 4" of green, then without disturbing the roots, slice the leek in half lengthwise. This makes for easy cleaning and the root bulb holds the structure together. And the leek's structure with its
endless arrangement of leaves wrapped inside of leaves is ideal for trapping sand and soil. So give them a good thorough bath.
Now on to the good stuff. I think 90% of the recipes you come across will have you discard the long green leaves, and use the bulb and the pale base of the stalk. Well, just hold on there. A quick search on-line revealed dozens of good recipes for leek leaves, particularly if you do toss the tough outer leaves.
But it is the lower 6" of the leek we like most. There are two classic things to do with leeks: you can work them into a soup and you can braise them in the oven or on the stove top.
For instance cock-a-leekie soup is a Scottish recipe that combines leeks with chicken and barley to make a dense, rich soup that will put you back on your feet. Dozens of variations exist, depending on what mixture of vegetables you want to add in. But it's the leeks and chicken that are at the heart of the soup.
Braised leeks are as simple as can be. You cut them lengthwise, and perform the obligatory rinsing to remove grit. You first sauté them very gently in butter and olive oil, then add in chicken broth and white wine for a simmer. In just a few minutes you're done, and after seasoning, the dish is good to go. I like to serve this recipe with a butter lemon sauce that works in a little of the cooking liquid.
After surfing the web I came up with a number of other good ideas for preparing leeks, and believe me, there are no shortage of ideas.
Allrecipes.com posted a recipe for a leek quiche. They pair the leeks with Gruyere cheese (one of my favorites) to make a very tempting dish. They also have a recipe that pairs leeks with cauliflower to make a hearty late winter soup.
Martha Stewart recommends sautéing leeks and apples together to serve as an accompaniment to roast pork. She also slices her leeks into long thin julienne strips to work into a pasta dish with poached scallops and fresh tarragon. One other dish from Martha Stewart that caught my eye is a risotto made with leeks, bacon and fresh spring peas. It sounds perfect for this time of the year.
From The Food Network, the Neely's whipped up a casserole with leeks, sausage, eggs and cheese. They served it for brunch, and it was no trouble at all.
From Daphne Dishes came a very inventive idea: a creamy leek sauce to serve with grilled steak. Chicken broth, heavy cream and garlic blended with diced leeks to make a very tasty sauce for the meat.
Literally dozens of the recipes I looked at called for bacon to go with the leeks. I don't know if it's because bacon is good with everything, or there is a natural affinity between leeks and bacon. I think there might be. Here is an idea: potato-leeks soup with bacon. You add home-made croutons and peas to the chunky potatoes and leeks, all swimming in a chicken and cream broth. Nice!
Simple Braised Leeks
4 leeks, trimmed but with root end tidy but intact, cut in half lengthwise, thoroughly cleaned
salt and pepper
3 tbs butter
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tsp lemon juice
grated parmesan cheese for garnish
crumbled bacon for garnish
1. Lay down the halves of leeks lengthwise in a skillet just large enough to
contain them. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
2. Gently sauté the leeks in 2 tbs of butter, cooking face down. Cook for about 2 minutes, then turn and continue another 2 minutes until they soften.
3. Add the chicken stock and the white wine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and
simmer until the leeks are fork tender, about 10 minutes.
4. Set aside the leeks and reduce the cooking liquid by half. Stir in the lemon juice,
and stir over low heat. Mount one last tbs of butter into the sauce, blending it in.
5. Arrange a pair of leeks per plate, spoon over with sauce, and garnish with the grated cheese and crumbled bacon.