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The hearty leek is a wintertime star

One of the vegetables that Mother Nature presents to us this time of year is the leek.

It truly embraces the season in which it thrives. Through the ages, leeks have been associated with cold-weather recipes: simmering stews and hearty soups. Like other members of the allium family, all it takes to tame its fiery flavor is a little bit of heat and time — two commodities that are in plentiful supply in most winter kitchens.

At a time of year when most vegetables are but a twinkle in the farmer’s eye, or nestled cozily in greenhouses waiting for the spring thaw, the leek is toughing out the winter in not-so-cozy fields.

Winter leeks were planted the previous May, and can be harvested by September. But if left in the field, they will continue to grow into November. Once they’ve reached maturity, leeks will not get any bigger, and they store nicely right where they are — in the ground. Growers continue to harvest the crop as needed until the plants go to seed the following May.

Nippy weather is one thing, but one would think that surviving the freezing temperatures generally associated with winter might be beyond even the heartiest leek. However, these plucky bulbs are rarely affected by a big freeze. The upper leaves may be burned, but the plants won’t die.

Harvesting leeks in winter is no easy task. The ground is cold and may be hard. Once the leeks are brought in, every one has to be cleaned thoroughly of dirt, with all traces of yellowed, frostbitten leaves removed.

Because all this work adds up to higher prices at the cash register, it’s important to select the best leeks money can buy. Look for straight, cylindrical stalks with clean bases.

At home, wash the leeks thoroughly and cut off the roots. Then slice each leek once from the green end almost to the base. Fan the two sections apart and pass the leek through running water to remove all the grit that has accumulated.

Leek Soup Au Gratin

Makes 6 servings.

6 tablespoons butter

4 cups thinly sliced leek rings (white and pale green portions only)

1 quart canned beef broth

2 to 3 tablespoons dry sherry, or 1 to 2 tablespoons brandy

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 toasted French bread croutons (see below)

2 cups each coarsely grated Jarlsburg cheese and Monterey Jack cheese

In a large pot, melt the butter and saute the leeks over medium heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the broth, sherry, pepper, and salt, and simmer for another 10 minutes to blend the flavors. Adjust the seasonings and ladle the soup into 6 ovenproof soup bowls. Add the French bread croutons, sprinkle each bowl with 1/3 cup of the Monterey jack cheese, and then top with 1/3 cup of the Jarlsburg. Place the bowls under the broiler until the cheeses melt and turn slightly golden, about 30 seconds. Serve immediately.

Toasted French Bread Croutons: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place 6 slices of French bread cut 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick on a baking sheet. Bake for about 20 minutes, until the bread is thoroughly dried out and lightly golden. About halfway through the process, spread both sides of each slice with a small amount of butter. These can be prepared several hours ahead.

Black Bean Chili with Leeks

3 to 4 servings.

1 cup chopped leeks

1/2 cup chopped celery

4 cloves finely minced garlic

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 (15 ounce) can black beans, with the liquid

1 (14-1/2 ounce) can of diced tomatoes and jalapenos with Mexican seasoning (Ro-tel is my preferred brand), with liquid

2 tablespoons chopped green chiles (either a fresh Anaheim or canned)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

2/3 cup double strength canned beef broth

2 teaspoons each: chili powder, cumin powder

Garnish suggestions: diced avocado and tomato, sour cream, shredded cheese, chopped green onions

In a large, heavy saucepan, saute the leeks, celery and garlic in the olive oil over medium heat until the leeks are softened. Stir in the black beans, tomatoes, chiles, cilantro, beef broth, chili powder and cumin, and simmer gently, uncovered, about 15 to 20 minutes, or until the mixture has thickened and the flavors have developed. This amount yields 3 to 4 servings, but the recipe can easily be doubled.

If you want to really jazz it up, pass around some tasty garnishes for the top of the chili, such as diced avocado, fresh tomatoes, sour cream, shredded cheese and chopped green onions.

Meat version: 1 pound of ground chicken, turkey or beef can be added when you're sauteing the vegetables. Just double the tomatoes, broth and chiles, and adjust the seasonings to taste. Makes 4 to 5 servings.


Seafood and Leek Stew

Makes 8 servings

12 ounces kielbasa or Cajun sausage, cut into 1/2-inch thick slices (I know this is a “seafood stew” but the sausage is delicious; omit if you don’t want it!)

1/4 cup olive oil

3 large leeks (about 1-1/2 inches in diameter; white portion and 2 inches of green), well rinsed and coarsely chopped

1 red sweet bell pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped

1 green sweet bell pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped

6 cloves garlic, finely minced

6 cups homemade or canned chicken broth

2 (14-1/2 ounce) cans diced tomatoes, undrained

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce (such as Tabasco)

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

1 bay leaf

1 pound medium or large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined

12 ounces raw scallops (either sea or bay scallops), rinsed and drained

1-1/4 pounds halibut (or other firm-fleshed fish), cut into chunks

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

In a large, heavy pot, saute the sausage over medium heat until brown, about 10 minutes. Remove it from the pot with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add the oil to the pot, along with the leeks, bell peppers, and garlic. Stir, and cook for about 10 minutes or until the leeks are softened. Add the chicken broth, tomatoes, cumin, cayenne, salt, white pepper and bay leaf. Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes to develop and blend the flavors (Note: The recipe can be prepared up to 48 hours ahead to this point; refrigerate). When ready to serve the stew, bring it back to a simmer, then add the shrimp, scallops and halibut; simmer for 5 minutes, or until the seafood has just turned opaque. Remove the bay leaf, if you can find it, add the parsley and adjust the seasonings; heat through for 2 to 3 more minutes. Serve immediately. Be sure and have a nice crunchy loaf of artisan bread on hand to help mop up the wonderful juices.

Hearty Beef and Leek Stew

Makes 6 servings.

1/4 cup olive oil

2 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

5 leeks (about 1-1/2 inches in diameter; white portion and 2 inches of green), well rinsed and coarsely chopped

4 carrots, peeled and cut into 3-inch lengths

4 parsnips, peeled and cut into 3-inch lengths

1/4 pound mushrooms, halved

1-1/2 cups homemade or canned beef broth

1-1/2 cups decent-quality (“drinkable”) dry red wine, such as a syrah or pinot noir

2 tablespoons red currant jelly

2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves, crumbled (or 4 teaspoons fresh)

1 teaspoon dried rosemary (or 2 teaspoons fresh)

6 cups halved Yukon gold potatoes

8 cloves garlic, minced

2 (16 ounce) cans Roma tomatoes, drained

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet.

Thoroughly brown the beef in small batches in the skillet over medium-high heat, about 6 minutes per batch. Transfer the beef to a heavy flameproof casserole and sprinkle generously with black pepper. Place the leeks, carrots, parsnips and mushrooms in the same skillet. Saute over medium heat to brown them slightly, 9 to 10 minutes. Remove the vegetables from the skillet and set them aside.

Add the broth and wine to the skillet, bring to a boil, and deglaze the pan by scraping up any brown bits from the bottom. Stir in the red currant jelly, thyme and rosemary. Cook for 1 minute, then pour over the meat in the casserole. Add the potatoes and garlic to the casserole, and bring the mixture to a boil. Cover, transfer to the oven, and bake for 45 minutes.

Remove the casserole from the oven and add the reserved vegetables. Stir in the tomatoes and the parsley, adjust the seasonings, and return the casserole to the oven. Bake, uncovered, until the beef and vegetables are very tender, about 45 to 60 minutes more. Serve.

Italian Sausage and Leek Soup

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

1-1/2 pound Italian sausage, removed from casings and cut into 1-inch slices

3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

3 large leeks (about 1-1/2 inches in diameter; white portion and 2 inches of green), well rinsed and coarsely chopped

3 stalks celery, chopped

1 sweet bell pepper, seeded and chopped

1 (16 ounce) can of Roma tomatoes

7 cups canned beef broth

1 cup decent-quality (“drinkable”) dry red wine, such as a syrah or pinot noir

2 teaspoons dried basil (or 1-1/2 tablespoons fresh basil)

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme (or 1 teaspoon fresh)

3 Yukon gold potatoes, diced

1 cup macaroni pasta, uncooked

Salt and pepper to taste

Parmesan cheese

In a large pot, brown sausage over medium-high heat; drain fat.

Add garlic, leeks, celery and bell pepper and saute until the leeks are limp. Stir in the tomatoes, breaking them up with a spoon or potato masher. Add broth, wine, basil and thyme. Simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes. Add the potatoes, macaroni, salt and pepper and continue cooking until the potatoes are tender, about 25 minutes. You may have to add additional water toward the end to reach desired “soupiness.” Sprinkle each serving with Parmesan cheese.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.