Leeks — A Green For All Seasons

March 24, 2009

Eat leeks in March and wild garlic in May, and all year after physicians may play
~Old Welsh Rhyme/Proverb

The leek, Allium porrum, is a member of the onion family, but the flavor is much more refined, subtle, and sweet than the standard onion. Thought to be native to Mediterranean and/or Asian regions, leeks have been cultivated at least since the time of ancient Egyptians and are depicted in tomb paintings from that era. The Romans worshipped leeks, and Emperor Nero consumed so many he earned the name Porrophagus (leek eater) among his other more deservedly derisive nicknames; he posited that eating leeks would improve his singing voice.

Together, leeks and daffodils form the national emblem of Wales.

Leeks have long graced European tables in varying forms. During the last century, leeks began to curry favor in America, and are now an ever more utilized and prized culinary element now readily available in markets throughout the year.

In France, the leek is known as un poireau, which is ironically also used as a derogatory term meaning “simpleton”—a far cry from the truly sophisticated character of this critter.

Leeks are cultivated in spring, summer, autumn and winter months. They thrive in cooler climes and are tolerant to frost, which explains their popularity as a winter vegetable. However, late spring baby leeks are preferred here as they have yet to have become too fibrous—an affliction which occassionally plagues the larger, late season plants.

During the growing process, sandy soil is piled up around the base of the leek to encourage a long, thin, white base. This method makes them a dirt sponge, so cleaning them thoroughly is crucial or your guests will be treated to a gritty dish. Remove any tired or damaged outer leaves. Trim the rootlets at the base and cut off around a half to two thirds of the dark green tops. Slice the leeks down the center and rinse under cold running water to remove all dirt and sand, being careful to get in between the leaves; then drain on paper towels.

Overcooking leeks will render them slimy and mushy. So, they should be cooked until tender but still exert a little resistance when pierced.

Below are indoor and outdoor versions of this green jewel. In later posts, I will address other ways to play with this green, such as leek soup.

BRAISED LEEKS

6 large leeks
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 T extra virgin olive oil
1 C shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 T thyme leaves or 1/2 T dried thyme
1/2 C dry white wine
2 C chicken stock

Preheat oven to 400

Peel any bruised outer layers from leeks. Trim rootlets, leaving root end intact. Trim off tops on diagonal, leaving two inches of green. Cut in half lengthwise. Rinse thoroughly in cold water to remove internal grit. Dry on paper towels.

With cut sides up, liberally season with salt and pepper. Heat 3 T oil in heavy saute pan over medium high heat for 2 minutes. Place leeks cut side down in pan without crowding them. Cook in batches, if necessary. Sear 4 to 5 minutes, until lightly golden, and then turn over to cook 3 to 4 minutes more. Transfer, cut side up, to a gratin dish that will fit leeks.

Pour 2 T oil into pan and heat over medium heat. Add shallots, thyme, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook about 5 minutes, until just beginning to color. Add wine and reduce by half. Add stock, and bring to a gentle boil over high heat. Pour over leeks, without quite covering them.

Braise in oven 30 minutes, until tender.

GRILLED LEEKS I

4-6 leeks
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Prepare, clean and slice leeks as above.

Preheat charcoal grill to medium high heat. Hold your open hand about three inches above the hot grate with the coals already spread and count to 3 seconds before the pain demands you retract (see On Grilling).

Place leeks cut side down diagonally on grill for several minutes until lightly browned. Turn leeks over again on the diagonal and grill for a few minutes more until brown. Remove and lightly salt and pepper (as they are preferred au naturel here, I omit this seasoning step.)

GRILLED LEEKS II

2 C white wine
2 C stock
4 cloves garlic, smashed
2 shallots, coarsely chopped
2 T butter
4-6 leeks

1 C olive oil
1/4 C red wine vinegar
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

Prepare and clean leeks as above, but do not slice.

In a heavy saucepan, saute garlic and shallots in butter for a minute or so—do not burn. Bring white wine and stock to a simmer, and then add leeks and braise for 10 minutes; remove and let cool, then slice lengthwise. Whisk together the olive oil, red wine vinegar and garlic in a large bowl, and the leeks and let marinate 1 hour.

Meanwhile, preheat charcoal grill to medium high heat. Hold your open hand about three inches above the hot grate with the coals already spread and count to 3 seconds before the pain demands you retract (see On Grilling).

Place leeks cut side down diagonally on grill for several minutes until lightly browned. Turn leeks over again on the diagonal and grill for a couple minutes more until brown.

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