Cooking with onions seems to be the base for just about any good recipe, but pull out a leek and everyone gets just a little nervous…isn’t that the weird veggie that Jacques Pepin uses all the time in French cooking? The one you have to wash and wash to get all the sand out? Yes, to both questions, but don’t shy away from the luscious leek just because you haven’t been properly introduced.
A biennial garden vegetable said to have originated in central Asia, the leek has been known since antiquity, even mentioned in the Bible. Cultivated extensively by ancient Egyptians, the leek was most likely introduced to Europe by the Romans, making its way north, where it has grown to be the “national vegetable” of Wales.
Used much more extensively in Europe than in America, the leek is worth the extra effort it takes to wash it for use. The white part grows underground and is formed of sheath-like cylindrical leaves that wrap around each other. This delicate part of the leek is the most prized for its mild, sweet flavor, while the heartier, top part of the leaves, which are a deep, rich green are more strongly flavored like onion. Don’t make a mistake however, and discard this part. Packed with nutrients, like chlorophyll…not to mention flavor, this part of the leek adds a lot to any dish.
With a subtle, sweeter flavor than onions, leeks are an excellent source of folic acid and a good source of iron and potassium. Also rich in vitamin C, B-6, magnesium, calcium and copper, leeks are said to work as a mild laxative, anti-arthritic and overall tonic.
Look for leeks that are straight, firm and intact with bright green tops and no brown patches. Cracked, swollen bulbs, dry split leaves, dried roots or a limp texture indicates that the leeks are less than fresh.
In season now, leeks can be eaten cooked or raw and add a sparkling flavor to salads, soups, stews, oven-roasted vegetables, steamed or poached…and are often used as the base of a recipe in place of onions. They are splendid as a side dish served with a simple vinaigrette and blend well with many herbs and spices.
Now for the infamous cleaning process. First, remove any damaged outer leaves. Trim off any dry parts at the top, retaining as much of the green as possible. Trim the bottom root, staying as close to the bottom as possible, removing only the tiny hairy roots, but keeping the root base intact. Now, slit the leek into quarters, stopping the cut about ¼-inch from the base so it holds together. Open the leaves and run under cold water, separating the leaves as you rinse, to remove all the sand and dirt. See? That wasn’t so hard.