Few vegetables can stand sentry against winter's rigors, safeguarding the ideal of eating with the seasons.
Come February, the squashes, potatoes and garlic harvested in fall either have been consumed or are starting to shake off attempts at storage. One member of the allium family, however, can remain snug in the soil for farmers and gardeners who had the foresight to sow it the previous spring or early summer.
12 small to medium leeks, cleaned and trimmed (about 2 1/2 pounds)
2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar, or a mixture of half sherry vinegar and half white-wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dusseldorf or Dijon mustard
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons chopped, fresh chives
1 tablespoon chopped, fresh tarragon or dill
1 (8-ounce) package cooked beets, diced (may use leftover, cooked beets or cook beets specifically for this dish)
Cut the leeks into 3 to 4 pieces. Cook them in a steamer over simmering water until just tender, for 7 to 10 minutes.
Combine the vinegar with the mustard in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in the olive oil; season with the salt and pepper to taste.
Arrange leeks on individual plates or on a serving platter. Drizzle with vinaigrette and sprinkle with the chives and tarragon. Chill until ready to serve, then sprinkle with the beets (their color will run if added too early). Makes 4 servings.
— Recipe from Marlena Spieler, author of "Williams-Sonoma Paris: Authentic Recipes Celebrating the Foods of the World"
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Trim roots off the leeks and trim off about 2 inches of greens. Cut leeks in half lengthwise, stopping just short of cutting them all the way through at bulbs, so that each remains held together.
Rinse leeks thoroughly under cold, running water to remove all grit. Dry as thoroughly as you can.
Set leeks on a baking sheet and brush them liberally with the olive oil. Roast them in preheated oven until knife-tender, about 20 minutes.
Remove leeks from oven and brush with the vinegar. Season to taste with the sea salt and pepper and serve hot or warm.
Makes 2 to 4 servings.
— Recipe from "Whatever Happened to Sunday Dinner," by Lisa Caponigri
SEPHARDIC LEEK PATTIES
2 pounds leeks
2 large potatoes, peeled
3 large eggs
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 cup grated pecorino Romano or feta cheese
Vegetable oil, for frying
Wash the leeks carefully, slicing them vertically to remove all grit. Dice white base and part of green leaves. Parboil in salted water for 5 minutes. Drain.
Boil the potatoes until soft. Drain, cool and mash potatoes. Add leeks, blending them in well. Add the eggs, salt and pepper to taste and the cheese. Blend well. Form into 12 patties.
Heat some of the oil in a heavy frying pan. When it sizzles (375 F), add leek patties and fry until golden-brown on each side. Drain on paper towels. Serve immediately. Makes 12 patties.
— Recipe adapted by McClatchy News Service from "Jewish Holiday Cookbook," by Joan Nathan
Leeks, like garlic, are the very definition of a long-season crop, requiring a good six months to size up for harvest. But leeks' almost unmatched hardiness permits growth, albeit slow, through cold weather with only a little frostbite on their tough, uppermost leaves, usually discarded before cooking, anyway. Whole leeks keep, refrigerated, for about a month.
And like hardy greens, leeks sweeten with some frost exposure, making February and March — before leeks start to go to seed — the prime time to incorporate them in all manner of dishes. Gentle roasting caramelizes leeks and maximizes their sweetness, cooking in liquid renders them meltingly tender and a quick stint in hot oil delicately crisps strips of leek.
Leeks' subtle, onionlike, almost buttery flavor is finding more favor in American kitchens after centuries of use primarily by European cooks. France couldn't have its vichyssoise, a cold, potato-based soup, or Scotland its chicken soup, known as "cockaleekie," without leeks.
The culinary history of leeks dates to ancient Egypt, where drawings of the vegetable adorned pyramid tombs. The ancient Romans also valued leeks, considering them superior to onions and garlic, which were regarded as food for the masses.
Legend has it that 7th-century 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.
For modern cooks, leeks usually symbolize one of the dirtier vegetables. The numerous, tightly packed layers that make up a leek often are repositories of sand and grit. Depending on the method of preparation, leeks either can be halved lengthwise and doused with cold, running water; sliced crosswise and rinsed in a colander; or submerged underwater to dissolve dirt.
Before rinsing leeks, trim away the roots and green, upper leaves at the point where the color begins to pale. Wash the fibrous fan of dark-green leaves and save it to use in stock.
Soups and stews are obvious repositories of leeks. But dishes from pasta and stir-fry to quiche and casserole can accommodate them. Leeks also can be sauteed, braised or grilled on their own for a side dish.
To cook whole leeks, arrange them in one layer in the bottom of a large saucepan and pour in boiling water or stock until they're half covered. Season leeks with salt and pepper, partially cover and simmer until tender, about 12 minutes or more, depending on their size and age. For a richer flavor, saute leeks in butter before adding cooking liquid.
For grilling, halve leeks lengthwise, brush with oil and grill, cut-sides down, over medium-high heat or medium-hot coals for 7 to 10 minutes. Turn and continue grilling for 5 to 7 minutes or until tender. Smaller leeks can be skewered for ease of cooking over gas or charcoal grills.
The recipes on the next page use several techniques — steaming, roasting and frying — to lengthen leeks' wintertime welcome.