Ingredients

Leek

Other Names: Poor man’s asparagus.

General Description: Leeks (Allium porrum) are large sweet stalks in the onion family that range in color from creamy white through deep greenish blue. Native to the broad region stretching from Israel to India, leeks have been cultivated since at least 3000 b.c. Phoenician traders introduced leeks to Wales while trading for tin. Legend has it that in a.d. 640, the Welsh wore leeks in their hats to distinguish themselves from the invading Saxons and won a great victory over their enemies.

In France, Belgium, and the Netherlands—the world’s leading producers—leeks are considered indispensable to cooking. The deep sandy soil of Flanders is ideal for the cultivation of special large leeks with long, white stems. The leeks are transplanted into drilled holes to keep them away from sunlight. These leeks are tender and delicate and fetch a high price. Tender baby leeks, about 1/2 inch in diameter, may also be found. To blanch their stems, leeks are grown either in trenches or with soil mounded around each plant. Some of this soil inevitably winds up between the layers, so you must take special care to wash out the grit.

Season: Leeks are at peak season from October through May, though they can be found year-round.

Purchase: Good-quality leeks are firm and smooth, free of blemishes, with crisp, brightly colored leaves and flexible stems. Baby leeks with thin stalks, similar to a large asparagus, will be tender and sweet.

Avoid: Do not purchase leeks with rounded rather than flattened bottoms, an indication of age. Avoid those with withered, yellowed, or slimy leaves. Unfortunately, in the U.S. leeks are sometimes overgrown until they’re dark, tough, and fibrous. The center stalk may have a hard woody core that must be discarded.

Storage: Cut off and discard the tough dark green tops. Store leeks wrapped in damp paper towels inside a closed plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Leeks produce odors that will be absorbed by soft fruits.

Preparation:

  1. Cut leeks into matchsticks, squares, or rings.
  2. Fill a large bowl with tepid water. Place cut leeks into the bowl and swish around vigorously to encourage the sand to wash away and drop to the bottom of the bowl.
  3. Scoop out the leeks and transfer to a colander to drain. If the bowl of water has a lot of grit on the bottom, repeat the process. Leeks will be especially gritty if they have been harvested in wet weather.
  4. If you will not be using the leeks immediately, drain and roll in paper towels before storing in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for several days.

Serving Suggestions: Deep-fry matchstick-sized pieces until crunchy and serve sprinkled with salt. Make chilled leek and potato soup enriched with cream and garnished with chives (called crème vichyssoise). Substitute leeks for asparagus in dishes featuring that vegetable.

Flavor Affinities: Butter, chicken, cream, fish, mussels, mustard, potatoes, tarragon, thyme, vinaigrette, white wine.

from Quirk Books: www.quirkbooks.com