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Lovely leeks

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Leeks, among the first veggies to appear at spring farmers markets, have a long history
E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNSA frittata with leeks, feta and pine nuts is flavored with fresh dill and a bit of lemon zest.
Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNSLeeks are roasted at high temperature before being bathed in broth then braised until silky and sweet.
Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune/MCTLeeks contain vitamins A and K, plus a lovely gentle onion flavor.
Cristina Fletes-Boutte/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNSGreek Leek Patties

A love letter I recently penned to fennel warrants a postscript.

A different darling of French cuisine won my affections before fennel came on the scene. And unlike fennel’s duplicity with anise, leeks are anything but coy at French farmers markets in February.

Neat stacks of leeks — like little, pale logs — are solid reassurance of spring’s return. Under their tough, topmost leaves, leeks are mild-mannered at heart. Slender in summer, these bulbs grow sturdy standing sentry against cold weather.

Leeks’ sweetly nuanced flavor — earned during months of overwintering — lends elegance to recipes with cream, butter and cheese. Gentle roasting caramelizes them and coaxes their depth to the surface. Cooking leeks in liquid renders them tender, and a quick stint in hot oil crisps strips of leek.

An allium related to onions, garlic, shallots and chives, leeks are the definition of a long-season crop, requiring a full six months or more to size up for harvest. And when winter’s potatoes, garlic and squash start ailing in storage, steadfast leeks can stay snug in the soil, making them among the first freshly harvested vegetables at early spring farmers markets.

Leeks’ culinary history dates to ancient Egypt, where drawings of the vegetable adorned pyramid tombs. The ancient Romans also prized leeks over 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 enemy fighters 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. To prepare leeks for cooking, remove any withered outer leaves and sever the dark upper leaves at the point where the green begins to pale. Cut off the roots, unless cooking the leeks whole.

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. Don’t forget to wash the fibrous fan of dark-green leaves and save it to use in stock.

Indeed, the stockpot is leeks’ prime milieu. Shoring up such stews as French “pot au feu,” leeks are a namesake ingredient in the Scottish chicken soup “cockaleekie” and a key component of “Vichyssoise,” France’s quintessential potato-based, chilled soup. The lighter, more nutritious French specialty, pumpkin-leek soup, endeared the latter to me many winters past.

Often cast in supporting roles, leeks can stand on their own. 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, for about 12 minutes or more, depending on their size and age. For a richer flavor, saute leeks in butter before adding cooking liquid.

To grill leeks, trim off the roots and the upper leaves, leaving about 2 inches of green above the white. Slice in half lengthwise, rinse carefully and drain. Brush leeks with oil and grill, cut sides down, over medium-hot coals for 7 to 10 minutes. Turn again 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.

This recipe for roasted and braised leeks echoes my favorite treatment for fennel, explained in the Feb. 9 column.

Roasted and Braised Leeks

12 medium leeks

6 tablespoons melted butter

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups hot chicken broth (preferably homemade), plus up to 1-1/2 cups additional

Kosher salt, to taste

Trim away root frills from each of the leeks. Trim away dark-green leaves, leaving white and pale-green portions. Starting at leaf ends, slice leeks in half, stopping 3 inches from root ends. Fan layers of leaf ends under cool, running water to rinse away dirt and grit.

Choose a roasting pan that will offer leeks a snug fit in a single layer. A 9-by-13-inch pan should do. Swirl the butter and oil in pan. Settle in cleaned leeks.

Slide pan into a 500-degree oven and roast for 15 minutes. Pull out pan. Use tongs to turn over each leek. Roast for 7 minutes. Pull out pan and turn leeks. Pour in 2 cups broth. Roast for 10 minutes. Turn leeks. Roast for 10 more minutes. If you started with leeks fatter than 1 inch in diameter, pour in another 1/2 cup broth and roast for 10 more minutes.

If you’re working ahead, let leeks cool. At serving time, pour in an additional 1 cup broth and heat at 500 degrees for 10 minutes. Either way, lift leeks out of their braising bath. Sprinkle with salt. Serve warm.

Makes 4 servings.

Recipe adapted by the Chicago Tribune from “Roasting: A Simple Art” by Barbara Kafka.

Frittata

2 small leeks

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1 teaspoon whole fennel seeds

1/2 cup finely chopped fennel, fronds, stem or bulb

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

4 eggs

3 tablespoons cream

1/4 cup crumbled mild feta cheese

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons pine nuts

Halve the leeks lengthwise and then slice crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick crescents. You’ll have about 5 cups. Using a salad spinner (or a colander set inside a pot), soak in 2 or 3 changes of cool water until clean. No need to dry.

In a 10- to 12-inch skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium-heat. Scatter on the fennel seeds. Toast until fragrant, for a few seconds. Slide in leeks and the chopped fresh fennel. Season to taste with the salt and pepper. Cover. Cook, stirring now and then, until tender, for 12 to 13 minutes. Set aside to cool down.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and cream. Stir in the feta, dill and lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in cooked vegetables.

Set oven broiler rack about 6 inches from heat source. Heat broiler on high.

Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter into an 8-inch, nonstick, ovenproof skillet set over medium heat. Pour in egg mixture. Using a soft spatula, pull set edges toward center a few times. Let cook undisturbed until frittata is set on bottom and not on top, for about 5 minutes.

Scatter nuts across surface; press them in gently. Broil in oven until nuts have browned and frittata puffs, for about 3 minutes.

Let frittata rest in pan for a few minutes. Loosen edges with a soft spatula and slide frittata onto a cutting board. Let rest. Slice and serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 4 servings.

Greek Leek Patties

2 pounds leeks

2 large boiling potatoes (not russets), peeled

3 large eggs, beaten

3 tablespoons matzo meal

1/2 cup grated Romano or Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper, to taste

Vegetable oil, for frying

Wash the leeks carefully, slicing them vertically to remove all grit. Dice white base and palest green part of leaves. Parboil in salted water for 5 minutes. Drain.

Boil the potatoes until soft. Drain and cool. Using a potato masher or food processor, mash potatoes. Add leeks, blending them in well. Add the eggs, matzo meal, cheese and salt and pepper to taste. Form this mixture into 12 patties.

In a heavy frying pan over medium high heat, pour oil 1/2 inch deep. When oil reaches 375 degrees, drop patties into oil, 2 or 3 per batch. Fry until golden-brown on each side. Drain on paper towels.

Makes 12 servings.

Recipe adapted by Tribune News Service from “Jewish Holiday Cookbook,” by Joan Nathan.

Pumpkin-Leek Soup

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 medium leeks (white part only), thinly sliced and rinsed well

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped

4 cups 1/2-inch-cubed pumpkin

4 to 6 cups chicken or vegetable stock

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1/2 cup coarsely chopped, toasted pumpkin seeds, for garnish

In a large pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the leeks and onion and cook, stirring often, for 10 minutes or until leeks are softened. Stir in the pumpkin and cook for 2 to 3 minutes until coated with butter.

Pour in enough stock to cover vegetables by 1 inch. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer mixture for 15 to 20 minutes or until pumpkin is very tender.

In a food processor or blender, puree soup in batches. Return soup to pot, reheat and season to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle into serving bowls and sprinkle with the pumpkin seeds.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.