Leeks are members of the allium family, the meeker sweeter relatives of the more forthright garlic and onion.
And fittingly they are at their best around now, in time for St David’s Day (which falls at the end of February) the feast day of the patron saint of Wales, where leeks are the national vegetable.
Combining fresh green flavour with mild oniony-ness, leeks are as flavourful as they are healthy, crammed with fibre, vitamins K, A and C as well as folate, manganese, iron, calcium and magnesium.
Around two-thirds of the length of a leek is white; this is where it was ‘blanched’ while growing underground, away from the sunlight. It’s also where much of the flavour resides, so the tough green leaves at the top of the stem are generally trimmed off and reserved for the stock pot.
Because the prized white part has grown in the earth, it’s essential to wash leeks thoroughly to flush out the soil that often gets trapped between the many layers of tightly bound leaves.
The best way to do this is to trim the base (leaving the leaves bundled together) and slice off the uppermost leaves. If you want to cook the leeks whole, make a cut from the top down to the point where the white part meets the green, being careful not to slice all the way through.Then, run the leek under cold water while gently pulling back the layers. If you plan to slice the leeks, cut the whole thing in half lengthways, and fan out the leaves under cold running water. Or slice, then rinse in a colander.
Leeks are supremely versatile. Just like onions, leeks can form the flavour base of a myriad different dishes, from soups and stews, to sauces and risottos. But leeks are so full of sweet delicate flavour they deserve to be the star of the show, too.
For a side dish that allows the virtues of leeks to dazzle, slice and sauté gently in lots of butter until meltingly tender. Or, achieve the same end by popping chunks or slices of leek in a baking dish with several generous knobs of butter, then bake in a moderate oven until they collapse into sweet submission. No other flourishes are required, part from seasoning well.
Alternatively turn leeks into soup. Step forward vichyssoise the famous creamy leek and potato soup from France, traditionally enjoyed cold. Or for something with a little more heft, try Scotland’s iconic cock-a-leekie soup, which comprises chunks of chicken, leeks and other vegetables (traditionally there are prunes in the mix too), bathing in a delicious chicken broth.
Slice your leeks in half lengthways – or leave young slender specimens whole – brush with melted butter or olive oil, then place on a searingly hot ridged pan or frying pan until charred all over and tender.
Boil: leeks are generally best braised, grilled or roasted but boiling has its place, too. Submerge young leeks in boiling salted water and cook until just tender. Drain well, then pour over a thick and vibrant vinaigrette made with a flavourless oil, red wine vinegar and Dijon mustard. Top with grated hard-boiled eggs or pangritata (breadcrumbs, shopped nuts, fresh herbs and garlic fried off until golden in olive oil or butter).
Slice your leeks in half or into chunks, toss in olive oil and salt and pepper and roast in a hot oven until tender and charred at the edges. Sprinkling over some grated cheese near the end of the roasting time would be far from a terrible idea.
The earthiness of both leeks and mushrooms makes for an outstanding union in crepes (go full French and try buckwheat galettes with grated Gruyere cheese on top). Or gently sauté leeks and add sliced fried mushrooms, chunks of cooked chicken and a creamy sauce for a glorious double-crust pie filling.Leeks and roast squash are excellent bedfellows: toss similarly sized chunks of both in olive oil and roast until tender. Add some crumbled blue cheese to the pan for the final few minutes of roasting for a salty, savoury flourish.
Add leeks to leftover vegetables for a delicious and comforting hash. Just fry with along with your cooked veg until warmed through – add spices like curry powder, ground cumin or smoked paprika for extra punch if you like. Serve with a runny-yolked fried egg on top.
Leeks work beautifully with butter, cheese, cream, chicken, pastry and mushrooms.
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