If you're looking for a change-of-pace flavor for your next soup, quiche or salad, consider giving the role to the leek - a vegetable that deserves the attention.
A kissing cousin of garlic and onion, with a sweeter and more subdued flavor, the leek is eminently versatile, though sadly under-appreciated, at least in America.
In Europe, leeks are a cooking staple, prized for their warm and onion-y flavor when cooked, and almost buttery flavor when chopped and sauteed.
The ancient Egyptians adored leeks, and even adorned their pyramid tombs with drawings of them. The ancient Romans also valued leeks, considering them superior to onions and garlic, which were regarded as food for the masses.
According to the late food writer and editor Alan Davidson, the Emperor Nero believed that consuming leeks would improve his singing voice, and was so partial to them that he was nicknamed Porrophagus (leek-eater) by the populace.
Centuries later, in the 7th century, legend has it that Welsh warriors wore leeks in their caps to distinguish them from the enemy in their victorious struggle against the Saxons. Thereafter the leek became the symbol of Wales.
Leeks are an essential ingredient in soups like French vichyssoise and Scottish cockaleekie. They give flavor to stews such as the French pot-au-feu, and are also used for stocks, appetizers and salads.
For salads and delicate dishes, it's best to use tender young leeks about 1½ inches in diameter. Larger than this they become tougher and stronger flavored, but are still fine for soups and stews. Avoid those with dried-out leaves or bulbous bases.
To prepare leeks for cooking, remove any withered outer leaves and trim and discard the green upper leaves down to where the green begins to pale. Cut off the roots and, unless you want to cook them whole, slice the leeks lengthwise. Rinse well to remove sand and grit that often lodges between the layers.
To cook whole leeks, arrange the leeks in one layer in the bottom of a large saucepan, and pour in boiling water or stock until they're half covered. Season with salt and pepper, partially cover the pan and simmer till tender, about 12 minutes or more, depending on size and age.
For a richer flavor, saute the leeks whole in butter until they're barely colored before cooking; or cook chopped leeks in butter in a covered saucepan over low heat for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
To grill leeks, trim off the roots and the upper leaves, leaving just about 2 inches of green above the white. Slice in half lengthwise, rinse carefully and drain. Place on metal skewers, brush with oil and grill cut side down over medium-hot coals for 7 to 10 minutes. Turn again and continue grilling for 5 to 7 minutes, or until tender.
According to Marian Morash in the classic "The Victory Garden Cookbook" (Knopf, 1982), vichyssoise was invented by French chef Louis Diat more than 50 years ago at the New York Ritz Carlton. A variation on his mother's leek and potato soup, he chilled it, added minced chives and milk instead of cream and named it after Vichy, the French spa close to his boyhood home.
This is Morash's version.
1 stick (4 ounces) butter
5 cups chopped leeks
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
3 to 4 cups roughly chopped potatoes
2 quarts chicken stock or water
2 cups heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
3 to 4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives.
Melt butter in a large saucepan, add leeks, celery and onion and stew slowly until golden and soft, about 10 minutes. Do not brown. Add potatoes and chicken stock or water, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are cooked through, 20 to 40 minutes, depending on potatoes' age and how finely they're chopped.
Puree soup till totally blended. Add cream, season with salt and pepper to taste, cover and chill for at least 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings before serving. Garnish with a sprinkling of chives on each portion.
Makes 4 servings.
These luscious leek patties are an ancient and traditional Jewish dish, enjoyed primarily in the spring when the first fresh leeks come into season. A version is also found in Turkish cuisine, among Jews and non-Jews alike. The patties can be also be made without meat, using the same technique.
Bulgarian Leek Patties
5 cups chopped leeks, white part only (about 5 leeks)
1 cup chopped onions
Rounded ½ cup potato flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
5 ounces ground beef
3 eggs, beaten
½ teaspoon garlic powder
Vegetable oil for frying
Remove the green leaves and roots from the leeks. Slice lengthwise, and rinse the white part well to remove soil. Drain and slice into strips. Place the leek strips and chopped onion in a pot, add boiling water until they are half covered, bring to a boil and steam 20 minutes until very soft.
Drain the vegetables well, and squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Grind coarsely in a food processor and transfer to a bowl. Mix in the potato flour, salt, pepper, ground beef, beaten eggs and garlic powder. Oil hands and form 8 patties (if making this recipe without meat, use a ¼-cup measure of the batter each time to make pancake-like patties).
Heat 1/8-inch oil in a heavy frying pan, and fry the patties on both sides till golden. Drain on paper towels and serve.
Makes 8 large patties (serves 4).
(Recipe from "The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking," by Phyllis Glazer with Miriyam Glazer, Harper-Collins, 2004, $29.95.
Easy to make, marinated leeks are a welcome addition to an antipasti platter, or served with any good cheese and hearty country-style bread. Use young, tender leeks for this recipe.
Marinated Leeks in Lemon Vinaigrette
8 baby or young tender leeks
2½ cups chicken stock (or 2 cups water plus ½ cup dry white wine)
For the Lemon Vinaigrette:
9 tablespoons olive oil (preferably extra-virgin)
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 scant teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 garlic clove, crushed or pressed
¼ teaspoon honey (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper and coarse sea salt, to taste
Rinse leeks and trim to equal lengths and place in a large saucepan. Bring the chicken stock or water and white wine to a boil and add to saucepan to half cover the leeks. Return to the boil, then lower heat and partially cover. Cook till fork-tender, about 12 minutes or more depending on age.
While the leeks are cooking, prepare the vinaigrette by whisking together with a wire whisk oil, lemon juice, mustard, garlic, honey, if using, and pepper and salt to taste. (For a quick way to a fluffy dressing, place all the ingredients in a screw-top jar together with an ice cube. Shake thoroughly and remove the ice cube before serving).
Remove leeks from the saucepan and drain thoroughly. While still warm, cover with vinaigrette. Serve warm or at room temperature. (May be prepared up to 24 hours in advance, covered and chilled in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature and shake before using).
Makes 4 servings.
(Recipe by Phyllis Glazer)