Venture to pick up a leek in the grocery store and someone's bound to ask "just what are those things--overgrown green onions?"
Leeks have been perennially popular in Europe, but have never taken root here. Their unpopularity is a mystery: they're easy to grow, easy to cook, delicious and versatile. Cousin to the onion, leeks have a much milder flavor and offer an advantage for onion-intolerant people--they often have no trouble with leeks.
That's just one reason it's time leeks had their due in this country: everyone else has been celebrating them for centuries. Shakespeare was a fan--so was Picasso. Aristotle swore by them and Nero ate them to improve is speaking voice--no record of what they did for his fiddling.
Of all the leek fans though, the Welsh have to be the greatest. It is their national emblem, stemming from 14 centuries ago when they wore leeks in battle against invading Saxons. The Welsh won, attributed their luck to the leek and have venerated it ever since.
Despite all this, except for with some gardeners, the leek is a relative unknown in America. Maybe leeks haven't caught on here because they can be, well, gritty. It's not their fault, you understand; it's the way they were raised.
You see, to maximize the stalk size they're grown either in trenches or with soil mounded around each plant. Some of this soil inevitably winds up in the crevices where the leaves form the stalk. There, it is especially hard to wash out, and ends up getting crunched between your teeth--the very thought sends a shiver up my spine.
Never fear, though. I've got the gritty leek problem beaten. I call it the wash, wash, wash method. It's a three-step process that all but guarantees grit-free leeks and works with almost any recipe, since the leeks are almost always sliced or chopped.
First, slice the leek in half, lengthwise. Loosen the layers under cold running water, running your fingers between them. Shake off the excess water, then chop or slice them as required by your recipe. Next, fill a large bowl with cool water and drop in the leeks. Swirl them around with your hands--the leeks will float and the dirt will sink. Scoop out the leeks and put them into a colander. Now rinse them again and let them drain. Presto, change-o: no dirt, no grit!
Once they're cleaned, leeks are usually sautéed or boiled. You can eat them just like that, with maybe a little butter--terrific with broiled or steamed fish--or use the cooked leeks as the base for another dish like the traditional salad made from boiled leeks tossed with the juice of a lemon, a little olive oil, salt and pepper.
It's the white part of the leek that's usually used, although I generally include several inches of the more strongly flavored green leaves because I like the added oomph. What you don't use of the leaves can be dried and used in vegetable soups or making stocks.
When shopping for leeks, look for ones about 1-1/4 to 1 1/4 inches in diameter that are free from a lot of cuts or any wiltiness. They're usually sold three to a bundle which is plenty for a big batch of soup with some leftover for experimentation.
If you grow them, you're even better off than folks that have to buy them, because if you like a lot of white on your leeks, you can simply mound the soil up a little higher on the stalk to blanch more of it. If you prefer more green, go easy on the mounding. Leeks love a rich soil, so add plenty of to it--in fact, you can use compost as your mounding material.
My favorite leek soup is this basic leek and potato one. It's simple--both to prepare and in it's character--but still elegant enough for a formal dinner. Just call it something fancy-sounding and Frenchish like Le Leek en de Pommes de Terre de Maison (insert your name here) Vichyssoiseque, give it your best Maurice Chevalier impression and evereebahdee weell be ecstateek, no?
Leek and Potato Soup
6 cups chopped leeks (about two medium)
6 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
4 tablespoons margarine or butter
4 cups chicken or turkey stock
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk 1/4 cup sour cream or plain yogurt
Melt the butter in a five-quart saucepan and add the leeks. Cook uncovered until the leeks are tender, then add the chicken stock, salt, pepper and potatoes. Cover, bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer until the potatoes are done--about twenty minutes--then stir in the milk and sour cream or yogurt. You can serve it as is with chunks of potato and leek, but I like to puree it in my blender and serve with a dollop of sour cream--for an artistic effect drag a toothpick through the sour cream to create a swirl. If you use defatted stock, skim milk and fat-free sour cream or yogurt, you've got a low-to-no-fat meal that's as satisfying as it is good for you. Any leftover soup can be frozen and thawed to enjoy on a winter afternoon.
When you do, think of Picasso. Hungry during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, he painted pictures of leeks to feed his soul. Personally though, between cubist leeks and soup, I'll take the soup.