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Versatile Leeks

This mild-mannered member of the onion family can be a supporting player or the star of the show

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There are a million reasons why I love leeks: They’re sweet and mildly oniony, they’re easy to prep, and they cook quickly. But most of all, I love leeks because they promise good eating. Unfortunately, these members of the onion family are easily overlooked on this side of the Atlantic. In France, where I spend several months each year, leeks are a day-in, day-out vegetable, a real kitchen workhorse. So I’ve grown accustomed to using them not only as an aromatic base for soups, stews, and braises or as a supporting player to other vegetables but also as a stand-alone vegetable (see “Tasty ideas starring leeks,” below). Leeks’ delicate flavor and gentle sweetness work well with both tangy, vibrant vinaigrettes and with the richness of cream and cheese. Bacon, pancetta, and prosciutto are also good additions to any leek dish. And when I’m not serving them alone, I like to pair leeks with other cold-season vegetables like winter squash, celery root, fennel, parsnips, beets, and of course, potatoes for a classic leek and potato soup. Leeks are excellent braised, roasted, and sautéed. Steaming is also a good method for cooking leeks before you toss them with a vinaigrette or finish them in the oven or on the grill. For braising, roasting, and grilling, I prefer to cut cleaned and trimmed leeks in half lengthwise, but I usually slice them crosswise for sautés and salads.

Buying and storing

Leeks are available year-round, but they’re at their best from early fall through winter and into spring. When buying leeks, look for firm, undamaged stalks and fresh-looking, brightly colored tops—the darker the tops, the older and tougher the leeks. The edible parts of leeks are the white and light-green portions (the dark-green leafy tops are usually cut off and discarded or used to flavor broths), so ideally, you want leeks with as much white stalk as possible. Wrapped in a damp paper towel and stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, leeks will last at least a week.

Clean them carefully

Since leeks are grown with soil piled all around them, there is plenty of opportunity for dirt and grit to settle between their onion-like layers. The easiest way to clean a leek is to trim the root end and the dark green tops and cut it in half lengthwise (or, if you want to retain the appearance of whole leeks in your dish, just cut about two-thirds of the way through the stalk, as shown at right). Hold the leek root-end-up under cold running water and riffle the layers as if they were a deck of cards. Do this on both sides a couple of times until all the dirt has been washed out.

Tasty ideas starring leeks

  • For rich braised leeks, brown halved leeks in butter or olive oil; then deglaze the pan with white wine. Add a little chicken broth, cover, and simmer until tender. Finish with chopped fresh thyme.
  • Toss together a zesty salad. Steam thin leek slices until barely tender and then toss with soy sauce, rice vinegar, lime or lemon juice, and toasted sesame seeds.
  • Make a comforting leek gratin. Steam leek halves until barely tender and then layer them in a buttered baking dish with white sauce and sautéed bacon bits. Top with Gruyère and breadcrumbs and bake until brown and bubbling.
  • For a hearty side or vegetarian main course, toss halved leeks in olive oil, salt, and pepper and roast until tender and lightly browned. Serve on top of hot, creamy polenta with a generous dab of Gorgonzola.

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