The leek is the more introverted cousin of onion and garlic. While it might not be the village bicycle of vegetables, it’s quite versatile, and can be incorporated into a variety of savory dishes. Unlike the onion, it never makes you cry, and unlike garlic, you’ll never end up with stinky fingers or pungent breath. Like most green veggies (besides iceberg lettuce, a guilty poser) leeks have a host of nutritional benefits. They’re a solid source of dietary fiber, the B9 vitamin folic acid, calcium, and vitamin C. If you’re combining with vinaigrette, I salute you. Milder than the onion or scallion, leeks make an elegant addition to your favorite dish. For me, leeks conjure up memories of Paris, particularly a morning promenade with my host mother Veronique to Belleville farmers market, where we would grab a petit brown bag of green treasures to make a velvety vinaigrette or creamy tart for supper.
**All About Leeks**
In Season: Leeks
When to Buy: Leeks are generally in season October through May, and reach their peak in January or early February. Winter leeks are special. Special enough for Nigel Slater (author of the vegetable bible, Tender) to wax poetic about them: “The leek is the vegetable of clear, white winter skies and kitchen windows fogged up with condensation. It is garden soil glistening blue with frost; grainy potato soups the color of antique linen; itchy socks that have slid down the back of your Wellingtons, toes numb with cold.” Leeks are high-maintenance: they can’t be machine harvested, but rather must be handpicked in the cold.
What to Buy: Some leeks can be as thin as your finger—just slightly thicker than scallions—while others can grow to be quite hefty. Bigger is not always better, as long as you have enough for what the recipe calls for. When choosing leeks, look for firm, straight, stalks with dark green coarse leaves and bright white stalks. If the bulbs are bruised or leaves look dead, walk away from the crime scene.
Prep & Storage: Cleaning leeks isn’t rocket science, but do make sure you get out the grit. Nigel recommends to “split the leek right down the shaft, splay out the layers, and rinse long and carefully under running water.” Most consider the edible part of the leek plant to be the long cylinder of leaf sheaths—cut off the bulb, and you have the entire white onion base and light green stalk to work with, up to the coarse, more spread out leaves. The tough guys aren’t anything to fear (many chefs toss them into soup or in chicken stock) they just won’t have that velvety luxurious texture. Add enough butter and/or stock, and you’ll be just fine.Leeks can be stored in the fridge—unwashed, yet trimmed—for about ten days. If you’re a freezer fiend, they’ll keep for 2-3 months. With all the delicious recipes below it’ll be hard to end up with leek leftovers, but if you do, know that they are perishable so best to eat within two days.
How to Cook:When you hear the word leek, you usually think of gently blended soup, leek vinaigrette, or the always festive leek mimosa (steamed, chilled leeks with finely grated hard boiled egg yolks the color of primroses). Leeks certainly caramelize, but not to the same sugary degree as onions do (if you’re a Dartmouth student dreaming of Stinson’s BBQ sweet onions, leeks might not do it for you).
Véronique was all “oh la la” about my passion for her poireaux. Whether that was because she expected me to be an American in PB&J withdrawal or because poireaux, to her, are just so ordinaire, is unknown (likely a mix). I’d had leeks before, usually sautéed in butter by my own mother, but Veronique brought me to appreciate the ephemeral quality of the naked, steamed leek. Steamed until done (the French are intent on stressing that the doneness of a dish is something instinctive, known to the esprit. So numbers like time and kilos were not mentioned here) and served with a curvaceous boat of rich, lemony vinaigrette, they’ll make even skeptics swoon. If you’re a leek vinaigrette virgin, as I was, know that your first time will likely be messy.
To make these heavenly leeks, simply steam one or two bunches (about 3-4 per bunch) in water, pat dry, and drizzle with a dressing of approx. 2 to 3 Tbsp. white wine vinegar, 1 to 2 tsp. Dijon mustard, ¼ tsp. salt, or more to taste, and 6 Tbsp. olive oil. You’ll find your proportions in due course. As I said, the French rarely specify numbers.
Recipe Box: What are you waiting for? It’s time to get yo’ leek on…
Apple Pasta with Caramelized Onions and Leeks
Leeks are a perfect ingredient for dolled up pastas. Coming back from an apple-picking trip? Consider this recipe instead of pie!
Mini Corn Leek Flautas
Leeks can be finger food, too (as a good friend would say, they’re so ‘hi baby!’)When the words velvety and luxurious make you cringe, try something slightly more naughty badass. These crispy, cheesy, corn and leek flautas are the Mexican counterpoint to your refined Parisian leeks vinaigrette.
Potato, Leek and Fennel Gratin
It’s hard to resist a Barefoot Contessa-inspired recipe. This one’s a real-deal Parisian dish with real heavy cream and Gruyere (the key to my fondue-obsessed heart).
Leek Soup with Lemon and Dill
This soup is a lighter counterpart to the gratin. Don’t worry, the crème fraiche gives it a little sumthin sumthin. But it’s meant to sing spring as opposed to a fireside food blanket. At less than 8 bucks, this won’t break the bank!
Beet Salad with Crispy Leeks and Bacon
This salad makes a damn good starter that will please even the toughest crowds. Bacon and leeks make a hot couple—try adding some leeks into your next bacon quiche or related tart recipe.
Squash, Leeks & Quinoa Stuffing
Move over, creamed spinach. There’s a new green for the Thanksgiving table. This quinoa stuffing is a nutritious and delicious side. Go wild.
Chicken & Leek Stir fry with Snowpeas
Leeks are just the ticket brighten up a brown looking stir fry. A great substitute for onions, leeks’ sweetness and bulk compliment Chinese flavors, too.
Brooke Elmlinger, a junior studying French and the art of the dinner party at Dartmouth College, is guilty of spending NYC lunch breaks browsing urban farmers markets.