Friday, October 22, 2010

Focus: LEEKS (Allium Ampeloprasum var. Porrum)

Subtle, distinctive, refined yet sociable, delicate, elusive, mild, gentle, delicious, sweet, hardy, versatile, underutilized.

This is a pretty intriguing list of adjectives.  Would you have guessed that they have all been applied to leeks at one time or another by a wide variety of food and cookbook writers?  Thanks to these adjectives,  I am reconsidering my placement of leeks in the vegetable pantheon.  I think I need to move them higher up on the list.

I have cooked with leeks for a long time, though I certainly did not grow up with them.  I cannot recall my first encounter with a leek in the kitchen, so it must not have been too traumatic.  A few years ago my husband kind of went crazy with leeks in our garden and I had the pleasant problem of dealing with a leek glut.  It was nice to have a surplus - I could cook them in quantity  They are so expensive in the stores that I was accustomed to being parsimonious with them.  I liked not having to worry about leek frugality for once.   I made a lot of potato leek soup.  I sauteed them in olive oil and then layered them with polenta and parmesan in a lovely casserole.  I roasted them.  We even at them on their own, braised with a little butter, as a side dish.  Luxury. 

So when I started to write this post I thought I knew a lot about leeks.  That I understood leeks.   But I realized that I really don't.  Now that I have thought more about leeks, I am looking forward to deepening my relationship with them.  I am going to pay more attention to their subtleties. 

Onions can be so, well, bossy and dominating.   Sometimes you just want an allium that is not so assertive.  One that "mingles amiably" with other foods, as the Stones write in The Essential Root Vegetable Cookbook.  I think I will be substituting them for onions more often.  If I can't convince Jack to put more of them in the CSA boxes, then we will just have to plant more in our garden. 

History of leeks
Leeks are such an old vegetable no one is sure of their origin.  It is said that leeks were among the rations given to laborers on the Pyramids.   And the Old Testament of the Bible mentions that “cucumbers, melons and leeks “ were the foods most missed by the Jews after their Exodus from Egypt.

Who appreciates leeks?
Leeks are a staple in France.  They are often called the "asparagus of the poor" as both asparagus and leeks are members of the lily family.  The French will saute or braise leeks like celery and use them in tarts and terrines.  And of course they are used with potatoes in soups. 

Leeks are much appreciated in the British Isles, where they were introduced by Caesar's legions.  They are popular especially in Scotland and Wales.  The leek is used in a signature Scots soup - cockaleekie soup.  This is a simple dish requiring one stewing chicken, lots of leeks, barley, carrot, potato, celery, bay leaf, salt and pepper and water.  Just cook it all together for hours and remove unwanted chicken bones and skin. 

The leek is the Welsh national emblem.  According to legend (and wikianswers), Saint David ordered his Welsh soldiers to identify themselves by wearing the vegetable on their helmets in an ancient battle against the Saxons that took place in a leek field. It is still worn March 1 each year - St. David's Day.

Cleaning leeks
When leeks are grown, soil is mounded up on each side to encourage blanching of the stalks and to keep them mild and tender.  That is why there is often lots of sand and grit hiding between the leaves.  It is not hard to remove this.  Trim off the tough outer leaves and the root end (just enough to remove the roots).  Slice the stalk lengthwise - but stop about 1 inch above the root end.  Soak in water about 10 minutes.  Spread the layers of leek under running water, rinsing off any remaining dirt or grit.  If your leeks are very young and thin, you may be able to leave them whole and wash them without have to slice them.

Storing leeks
Do not wash leeks until you are ready to use them.  You can trim off the large, tough flat leaves and upper part of the stalk before storing, however.   Compost them or wash and trim the outer leaves and freeze to use later for soup stock.  They will get mushy but they still are usable.  Keep the unwashed white part plus about 3 inches of light green,  including the root end,  in the vegetable crisper, loosely wrapped in a ventilated plastic bag.  The leeks should keep up to 3 weeks. 

Preparing leeks
Leeks can be substituted for onions in almost any dish.  Don't just relegate them to the soup pot- they have many other uses.  The edible part is the thick white stem and the light green portion of the leaves (about 2-3 inches).  Ideal size is from 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter.  Leeks larger than 2 inches can be tough and fibrous.  Avoid leeks with a flaring bulbous root end.

One way to get maximum use from a leek stalk is to "reverse trim" it.  This means cutting off the outer leaves one layer at a time as you go up the stalk, so as to save the more tender inner part.  Try to end up with a stalk about 7 inches long - the white part, the light green part and some of the inner leaves above the light green part. 

Don’t overcook leeks.   You want them tender but they should still offer a little resistance to a sharp knife or fork.  (If you are cooking them in a soup, you can cook them longer.)  Mature leeks become tender after 15-20 minutes of boiling, steaming or braising.  This is a general rule - timing can vary depending on the size of the leeks you are working with.

Equivalents – 2 pounds = 1 pound cleaned–and trimmed =  4 c chopped =  2 c. cooked chopped
For eating whole, allow 2 med (1 inch diameter) leeks per person
Reverse trim - take advantage of tender inner layers

Slice off just the root end so leek layers hold together

Slice leek lengthwise

Rinse under running water to remove any grit still lingering in the leek

Many recipes call for sliced leeks - here's how


Vichyssoise (vish-ee-swahz)
This is one of the most famous uses for leeks.  It is a rich potato leek soup served by Chef Louis Diat at New York's Ritz Carlton hotel.  It is pureed and served cold.  I was going to give you the recipe from the New York Times Cookbook.  But even I - cream promoter that I am - hesitated at the excess of butterfat in that recipe.  So I found this version from The Classic Vegetable Cookbook by Ruth Spear.   (You can get this book on E-Bay for about $5-10.  I found mine at a used book store for $5.00.  I like it a lot.)  The moral of this story is that every recipe is not the same.  Even recipes for supposedly classic dishes can vary greatly.  This is why you need to have some trusting relationships with cookbook authors or food websites - or your favorite bloggers!

1 1/2 pounds leeks, white parts only -- washed and thinly sliced
4 T. butter
4 cups peeled and coarsely chopped raw potatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds)
3 cups boiling water
 3 cups chicken broth
salt and white pepper
 1 cup heavy cream
chopped chives
Saute leeks in butter for about 5 minutes - do not brown.  Add potatoes, water, broth amd 1 t. salt.  Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, partly covered, about 30 minutes.  Potatoes and leeks should be tender.  Let vegetables cool.  Puree (food mill, food processor, blender)  Add the cream and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Chill at least 8 hours.  Serve in chilled bowls, garnished with chopped fresh chives.  Serves 8.

Roasted leeks
Roasting concentrates flavor and accentuates sweetness.  Clean and trim and slice leek in half.  Brush lightly with oil or melted butter and  roast at 400 degrees in an oiled roasting pan for about 35 -45 minutes.   Baste a few times to prevent drying out.

Gratin of leeks and potatoes
Saute 2 cups of sliced leeks and 2 cups of thinly sliced potatoes in a little butter or oil until vegetables are tender. (You might need to cover the pan for a few minutes to let the vegetables steam a bit.)  Spread in a shallow pan.  Cover with a white sauce.  Sprinkle with fresh chopped parsley, parmesan and buttered bread crumbs.  Bake at 375 degrees about 30 minutes, until cooked through and topping is brown and crunchy.  Variation - add some chopped ham to the potatoes.

Julienne of leeks
Cut washed leeks (white and 2 inches of green) lengthwise and then in 2 inch lengths.  Slice lengthwise into very fine julienne slices.  Melt butter in saute pan.  Add leeks and 2 t. water or white wine.  Cook over moderate heat about 5 minutes, until the leeks wilt. This is good as a garnish with poached or sauteed fish.

Soupe Bonne Femme
This is also a soup served by Chef Diat.  When he was a boy in France, his family sometimes started the day with a bowl of this soup.  Why not?  I have adapted this recipe from The Classic Vegetable Cookbook.
2 cups sliced leeks - white and light green parts
1/2 cup chopped onion or shallots
2 -3 T. butter
4 cups chopped, peeled potatoes
2 cups boiling water
2-3 cups milk
salt and pepper to taste
Chopped fresh parsley or chives for garnish
Saute leeks and onions in butter for a few minutes.  Cook, covered, on medium heat a few more minutes.  Do not brown.  Add potatoes and boiling water and 1 t. salt.  Cover and cook about 25 minutes, until potatoes are soft.  Add milk to make soup desired thickness.   Serve hot, garnished with fresh herbs.  If you want, you can crush the potatoes with a potato masher for a smoother texture to the soup.


  1. Thanks for the tip about reverse trimming leeks. I've learned a lot from your blog this season. Thanks!

  2. That Potato Leek soup is amazing! I hope we get more leek's in next year's CSA box!