Tuesday, October 11, 2011

All You Need to Know About Leeks

Leeks are far more popular in France than here in the States. They are part of the onion family and, in fact, look like a giant version of scallions or green onions. However, leeks have a more delicate and milder flavor than other onions and add a subtle touch to recipes without overpowering the other flavors that are present. They are an important ingredient in pot-au-feu and I often use them in stews and braised dishes (look for both my pot-au-feu and my braised guinea fowl recipes in upcoming columns). Today’s recipes concentrate on leeks as the main event!

How to Select Leeks
Leeks should be firm and straight with dark green leaves and white necks. Good quality leeks will not be yellowed or wilted, nor have bulbs that have cracks or bruises. Since overly large leeks are generally more fibrous in texture, it is best to purchase those that have a diameter of one and one-half inches or less. Try to purchase leeks that are of similar size so as to ensure more consistent cooking.

How to Store Leeks
Fresh leeks should be stored unwashed and untrimmed in the refrigerator, where they will keep fresh for a week or two. Wrapping them loosely in a plastic bag will help them to retain moisture. Cooked leeks are highly perishable, and even when kept in the refrigerator, will only stay fresh for about two days. Leeks may be frozen after being blanched for two to three minutes, although they will lose some of their desirable taste and texture qualities. Leeks will keep in the freezer for about three months.

How to Clean Leeks
Leeks have to be washed very carefully because sandy grit is often found between the many layers inside.
In these recipes you are going to cut the leaks into rings or small strips so cleaning is easy. First cut off the really dark green top leaves and discard. They are very tough and cannot be used. Cut off root and cut leeks in half lengthwise. Fan out the leeks and rinse well under running water, leaving them intact.  Then paper towel dry and place on cutting board. Cut into rings or half circles and then put them in a bowl of cool water, rinse again and use a salad spinner to dry. 

Leek Season
Although leeks are available throughout the year they are best when in season from the fall through the early part of spring. So now is a good time to start cooking with them!. The first recipe I owe to my French niece Sophie who made this for us on a visit to our home years ago. It has become a staple of out fall and winter recipes.

Leek & Bacon Pie
¾ lb of the whites of washed fresh leeks
5 tablespoons of butter
¼ cup flour
2 cups + 1 teaspoon of boiled milk (hot or cooled)
¼ lb of diced bacon (or petites “lardons” cut from a slab of fat trimmed bacon)
1 Pillsbury pie crust (or home made if you prefer)
Pepper, salt and nutmeg
Roll out the dough and fit into a pie pan. (I like the metal ones in which the sides come off and leave the base for serving). With a fork poke holes in at least 5-6 places. Freeze until we are ready to use.
Preheat oven to 350F.
Cut the cleaned leek whites in circles or half circles. Blanch the bacon in boiling water for one minute (This reduces the fat and the greasy taste). In a large pan melt half of the butter and add the blanched and diced bacon. When they start to color add the leeks. On a small flame let them soften for about 15 minutes, stirring from time to time, but do not allow to brown! Add the flour and stir. Allow to cook for 2-3 minutes. Gently add the milk a bit at a time, continue to stir from time to time and not allowing to brown. Add pepper, salt and a bit of nutmeg. Bring to a boil, and while stirring and take off the high heat to put on a very small flame, allowing to cook very slowly for another 20 minutes.
Take the pie crust out of the freezer and place pieces of the rest of the butter on the crust. Pour the cooked leeks and bacon mixture into the pie crust and quickly place in the oven for about 20 minutes or until golden brown. Place your protected hand on the bottom of the pan, slip the sides off and place the tart on a serving dish.  Serve immediately because it will fall in a few minutes and look much less impressive (but will still taste just as good!).

Leek & Potato Soup
4 servings
½ lb of washed leek whites cut in pieces
1lb of russet or Idaho potatoes peeled and quartered
1 zucchini, washed, peeled and cut into large pieces
salt, pepper
3 tablespoons of cream fraiche or heavy cream
1 tablespoon of butter
Optional: Shredded cheese (cheddar or Swiss)
Melt butter into soup casserole and add the leeks on low flame. Let them “sweat” until limp. Add the potatoes and zucchini and cover with water (water should be about one inch higher than the vegetables). Bring to a rolling boil and reduce flame to medium. Allow to cook for about 12 minutes or until the potatoes mash easily. Mash all cooked ingredients. Add seasoning and cream. (If too thick add milk). Serve with optional cheese.

Leek Omelet
(For each individual omelet)
2 small leek whites chopped
1 tbsp unsalted butter
2 eggs (cage-free, vegetable-fed, antibiotics-free).
salt and pepper
Melt half of the butter in an anti-adhesive low-edge pan on high heat. Once it starts bubbling add the leeks. Stir with a wooden spoon. Reduce the heat, cover with a lid and slowly cook until the leeks are transparent and soft. Season with salt and pepper. Beat eggs vigorously with a fork. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and add two tablespoons of water. The more the eggs are beaten, the lighter the omelet. Turn up the heat and add remainder of the butter. Once the pan is very hot, pour the eggs and tilt the pan to spread them evenly over the leeks. Then wait a minute or two. Fold the omelet in half. Tilt the pan to spread the remaining liquid eggs on the entire pan. Then fold this newly formed disk on the half-moon omelet. Remove from the heat while the omelet is still runny ("baveuse") inside yet solid outside. Or if you prefer well done, you can cook it through and through by flipping the omelet.

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