Leeks have come a long way in my life since 2001. It’s been an uphill battle for this once neglected ingredient. Unlike onions and garlic, the leek is more intimidating. It seems almost alien when pulled from a grocery bag and placed on a cutting-board at home.
I remember a cashier quizzically examining a bunch of leeks at the grocery store. When she failed to find an item number or barcode, she turned to me and asked the obvious question: What are these?
“Leeks.” I said. “They’re leeks.”
“What do you do with them?” she followed.
“You cook them.” I answered, somewhat irritably. “They’re like sweet, mild onions when you cook them. And buttery.”
With a smile she must have donned a million times a day, the cashier flipped through her little veggie-rolodex, punched in some numbers, charged me, and sent me on my merry way. I shook my head the whole walk to the car. Fresh out of culinary school, I couldn’t believe there was anyone on earth who hadn’t heard of a leek. It was the kind of pretentious, new school attitude a white chef coat and pair of clogs will give any kid. And I cringe when I think back on it.
She was asking obvious questions. And while I gave her honest answers, I knew instantly that I had not gained the leek any ground on her dining room table. They look strange, and awkward. Plain and simple. But they are like sweet, mild, buttery onions when you cook them.
Jack Bishop writes, “leeks should be firm with crisp, dark green leaves.” And I agree with him. At Wolff’s you’ll find them sold individually or sometimes bunched by twos or threes. They can be prepared in a multitude of ways, but are most commonly sliced cross-wise into eighth to quarter inch strips, or sliced through the axis and kept in two tidy halves. It is easier to clean them using the former method, however the latter will be preferred by the aesthete because the leeks retain their natural shape, and can be served appealingly on a plate.
For either method, begin by trimming and discarding the dark green tops and tough outer leaves. Remove the roots along with a narrow slice of the nearest white part.
Slice the leek through the axis, dividing it into two equal halves.
If you desire only to halve them, stop here. If you would like to slice them into loose strips, cut enough of the white part off such that the layers separate.
From here, the cook may slice them,
plop them in a deep bowl of water and slosh them around until any dirt caught between the leaves settles out.
The cleaning process is slightly more labor intensive when keeping them in halves. When you have acquired your two halves, run the leeks under cold, running water while gently spreading the layers enough to remove the soil.
For especially sandy leeks, this process may need to be repeated a couple times. After a good cleaning and inspection, your leeks are ready for cooking.
For an honest, simple recipe which showcases the leek’s very best qualities, I find myself drawn back again and again to this recipe of Bishop’s included in his humble book, Vegetables Every Day.
- 6 medium leeks
- 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
- 1½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon leaves
- Trim and discard the dark green tops and tough outer leaves from the leeks. Remove the roots along with a very thin slice of the nearby white part. Halve the leeks lengthwise and wash them under cold, running water. Gently spread apart but do not separate the inner layers to remove all traces of soil. If the leeks are particularly sandy, soak them in several changes of clean water.
- Bring several inches of water to a boil in large saucepan. Place the leeks in a single layer in a steamer basket and place the basket in the pan. Cover the pot and steam until the leeks are tender, about 15 minutes. Remove the leeks from the steamer basket and transfer to a platter. Pat dry with paper towels. (The leeks may be cooled slightly or covered and refrigerated until well chilled.)
- While the leeks are steaming, whisk the vinegar, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste together in a small bowl. Whisk in the oil until the dressing is smooth. Whisk in the tarragon and adjust the seasonings.
- Drizzle the dressing over warm or chilled leeks and serve immediately.
For anyone unfamiliar with cooking leeks, Jack’s recipe is a perfect starting-off point. The small ingredient list and easy preparation make this dish very accessible to the unseasoned chef. That said, one may elevate this dish from casual to elegant with the addition of three more ingredients, and a little extra time at the kitchen counter.
For this project, you will need two medium beets, a small length of goat cheese, and 8 slices of smoked bacon. You can prepare all of these ingredients prior to beginning the “steamed leek” recipe.
First, steam the beets by wrapping all of them loosely together in aluminum foil and placing them in a 350 degree oven. Cook the beets until a knife may be inserted with little resistance.
When the beets are fully cooked, and have cooled enough to hold, peel them and cut each into half-inch dice.
Second, slice your bacon horizontally into short, quarter-inch strips
and cook in a shallow pot until crispy and deep golden-brown.
Third, carefully peel the goat cheese and (as best you can) slice it into quarter to half-inch pucks.
Prepare the “Steamed Leek” recipe. When all three extra ingredients are ready, it’s time to assemble. I like to begin by setting two leeks side-by-side, and drizzling the vinaigrette over top of them. From here, I set a puck or two of goat cheese beside a small heap of lightly dressed (using the same tarragon-mustard vin.) beets. Lastly, I sprinkle over some of the crispy bacon.
For added thrills, I like to shove a sprig of fresh tarragon somewhere into the mix!
Like I said, leeks have come a long way since 2001. And who knows, with your help maybe we can nudge this delicious vegetable a little further.
…Maybe even all the way to your Easter brunch.