Leeks: Life Beyond Potato Soup
By Dani Lind | Photo By Jim Klousia 0
As far as flavor goes, leeks are undeniably the most subtle edible member of the Allium family, sister to onions, scallions, shallots and garlic. Nonetheless, they command a presence all their own. The mild, sweet flavor and beautiful form of leeks makes them more of a stand-alone vegetable than any of their brethren— you never think of garlic as a side-dish or a scallion as a soup.
Rarely seen beyond potato-leek soup in the American mainstream (and even that only in recent years), leeks have been beloved for centuries across northern Europe. Although probably native to Central Asia, ancient Egyptians and Greeks cultivated and used them extensively, but the ancient Romans made them famous. The Roman emperor, Nero, was said to eat them every day to keep his voice strong, and Romans brought leeks with them when they invaded the British Isles around 2,000 years ago.
Leeks flourished in the cool, damp climate of the Isles and quickly became a staple crop and key to many historic regional dishes before spreading to the rest of northern Europe. The vegetable is a national emblem of Wales, where military badges and coins feature a lovely leek with a crown around it. People still wear leeks on St. David’s Day (Wales’ patron saint) to commemorate a military victory over the Saxons in the 7th century. One of Scotland’s most legendary dishes is cock-a-leekie soup, as well-known there as haggis, porridge and bannocks. Ireland has colcannon, a sautéed mix of leeks, potatoes and cabbage.
From a culinary standpoint, potatoes are the most obvious and common accompaniment to leeks. There are endless variations to potato-leek soup, with or without dairy or chicken. There’s Scottish cock-a-leekie, a chunky brothy mix of chicken, leeks and prunes, or vichyssoise, an American-French hybrid of cold, pureed potatoes, leeks and cream. Then there’s the ubiquitous potatoleek soup made from scratch or found in cans, aseptic boxes, and food service buckets across the United States. And don’t forget countless variations of potato-leek casseroles, from Irish colcannon to gratins, from quiches to savory tarts/pies. In addition to being perfect with potatoes and chicken, leeks’ sweet, mild flavor complements seafood, pork, root vegetables and cooking greens wonderfully. Leeks are also delicious just by themselves, especially when braised in butter and white wine or water and aromatic herbs, or blanched and drizzled with vinaigrette.
I usually associate leeks with European cuisine, especially French and British, since these countries are the source of the most famous leek dishes featuring butter, potatoes, white wine, thyme and cream. But they’re also yummy in Mediterranean dishes. I had braised leeks in Crete with an egg-lemon sauce, and caramelized leeks are amazing in pasta with aged parmesan, pancetta, and rosemary.
Their subtly complex yet mild flavor lends itself to a variety of Asian applications as well. Leeks are quite often found stir-fried or braised in Japanese dishes, especially with noodles. A form of baby leeks can be found in Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese recipes.
Leeks contain most of the same antioxidants as the rest of the onion family, albeit with slightly less concentrated phytonutrients. They have a fair amount of vitamins K, A and C, with a smattering of minerals. As with other vegetables, vitamin content is highest when the leeks aren’t overcooked. (Overcooking also produces slimy, mushy leeks, which makes you want to eat less of them.)
Big isn’t always better with leeks. A really large leek or one that is starting to bulb out tends to be on its last leg and may be tough. Baby leeks are tender and delicious, but medium-sized leeks with a one- to one-and-a-half-inch diameter and six- to nine-inch-long white part are considered the best. The white part is formed by physically covering the bottom of the leeks with soil or some other covering in a process called “blanching,” which prevents the sun from performing photosynthesis and turning it green like the leaves. Soil blanching also makes the white part extra tender.
Many recipes say to only use the white and light green part and throw away the green leaves, but I always keep the leaves for making stock. They’re a bit tougher than the whites, but they add a lot of flavor to stocks and broths. They can also be a beautiful addition to a soup or used as garnish when sliced very thinly.
The trickiest part about cooking with leeks is getting them clean of mud and grit. The process of soil blanching to get nice long white stems also tends to get lots of dirt into leeks’ many layers. The easiest way to clean them is to cut them in half lengthwise and rinse well or even soak them in cold water. It doesn’t hurt to give them even another rinse in a colander after chopping. Really take care when cleaning leeks—there’s nothing worse than biting into a mouth full of grit in an otherwise carefully prepared dish.
Here are some suggestions for adding delicious leeks into your meals this fall:
- Clean, chop, blanch for a couple minutes, and add to salads
- Sauté in butter or olive oil and serve as-is or toss in pasta
- Sauté and then simmer in soups, with or without chicken, cream, and potatoes
- Poach in a foil packet or covered casserole dish with fish, lemon, white wine, and dill
- Cut lengthwise into quarters almost to the root, clean well, blanch, then toss with oil and briefly grill
- Cut in half lengthwise almost to the root, clean well, and braise in water and aromatic herbs. Serve with dressing or butter and chopped herbs
- Cut into big chunks and roast with potatoes, beets, and turnips
- Use whole or halved lengthwise as a base for slow roasting big cuts of beef, pork, lamb, or whole chickens