Contributed by Katy Morris
We are very excited to introduce a brand new series…Seasonal Snippets! These monthly posts will provide you with everything you need to know about the most interesting seasonal fruits and veggies so that locavores can continue to eat the diverse bounties of our land all year long.
What the heck is kohlrabi? How should I incorporate fresh figs into a recipe…and where can I even get them? Rutabaga-whata? And how do I handle celeriac? We will answer these questions and much more…
Now, you’re probably thinking it’s odd to launch this series in the dead of winter when the ground is frozen under a foot of snow. It’s my own sneaky way of trying to get you excited about some local ingredients that you may not have paid much attention to. Take a walk through your farmers’ market and you will be pleasantly surprised by the shift of sights, fragrances and energy as we appreciate mid-winter ingredients and their subtle pleasures.
We kick off this exciting new series with the versatile cold weather crop, leeks.
What exactly are leeks?
You’ve probably heard of leeks as they are pretty popular in soups, but there are lots of creative ways to incorporate this vegetable into a variety of dishes, like the one we featured in September, Imam Bayeldi. Leeks belong to the allium family – the same as onions. Although they look nothing alike and are cooked very differently, they indeed share a botanical relation and are also both aromatics. Most of the time, people eat the white and lighter green parts of leeks, but the darker greens also have great flavor (more on this later).
What do they taste like?
Raw leeks have a pretty sharp taste similar to onions, but when cooked properly, they have a much more subtle and sweet flavor.
Are “wild leeks” and “leeks” the same thing?
Nope, they are not. Wild leeks or “ramps” are a different variety and have a much stronger aroma and flavor.
When do leeks grow?
Although they are available for growing year round, leeks are at their best starting in the fall through the early part of spring, so January is primetime.
What do I look for when buying leeks?
Just like scallions, leeks are generally sold in bunches. Keep in mind that younger leeks tend to have a more delicate texture and flavor. You can tell the maturity of a leek by its bottom; if they are becoming bulbous, they have matured a little bit too much.
Select leeks that have deep, vibrant green leaves with cream-colored bottoms – these are the freshest – and stay away from dulled, yellowing ones. The best ones will also be firm and free of blemishes.
How do I store them?
You should not trim or wash the leeks before storing. Leeks’ strong aroma can permeate the refrigerator and be absorbed by other foods, so it’s best to store them uncooked in plastic wrap in the veggie crisper. Depending on how mature your leeks are, they can be stored anywhere from 1-2 weeks. If you are going to use your leeks for a main dish, don’t freeze them, as this tends to give them a bitter taste.
Walk me through the parts of this vegetable.
There are four main parts to a leek, and the only part that is unusable is the root end.
- Generally, the dark outer leaves have been removed when sold in grocery stores. You will likely still see the outer leaves still on at the farmer’s market though. Keep in mind that these can be great for flavoring veggie stocks.
- Greens tend to be removed and not used, but these can also be great in a number of ways (see below). Don’t get rid of these.
- Light green/white parts are called for in most recipes.
- Root ends can be thrown away and are not used in cooking.
How do I clean them?
Leeks attract dirt, so especially if you are buying them from your local farmer’s market, you need to wash them thoroughly. It’s important to keep in mind that you can’t simply rinse and cook leeks since the dirt tends to get deep inside them; this is because soil gets piled up around them when grown ( called “blanching”) so that the majority of the leek is hidden from the sun . This makes them lighter in color and increases their tenderness.
The methods for cleaning depend on the way you are using them in the dish you are preparing. When using them chopped (common for soups), you should first cut off the roots, slice lengthwise, then cross cut. Put the chopped leeks into a bowl filled with cold water and toss them to remove any stuck pieces of dirt. Finally, scoop out the leeks with a slotted spoon and put in a dry bowl.
For prepping whole leeks, you will approach it a little differently: slice lengthwise about two or so inches from each end, leaving the center in tact. Then, while rinsing under cold water, fan out and rub the leaves to get the dirt off.
How are they used in cooking?
This vegetable is extremely versatile. You can steam ‘em, bake ’em, sauté ‘em, chop ‘em, braise ‘em, use ‘em in stews and soups, as a garnish, side dish, or even a main. With its subtle flavor, leeks tend to pair particularly well with fish, potatoes and sometimes even raw in salads.
As we mentioned above, while many people think only the white parts of a leek should be used, there are great ways to use the green parts as well – making this a great two-in-one vegetable.
Tell me more about the green parts…
The green parts are generally long and flat and hence can be cut up in various ways, depending on the recipe. They also have a flavor difference: the white part tends to be more delicate and the green more robust, which is why many people use them for stock. You can simply sauté them (low heat is recommended) for about 5-7 minutes, stir-fry (cook briefly), simmer (with 1 cup great vegetable broth and a dash of salt and pepper for 3-5 minutes), or add them in your favorite casserole or soup.
What does “sweating” mean?
This is very important. When recipes call for sautéed leeks, it really means you should “sweat” them. Just like sautéing, when you are sweating leeks, you start with a little bit of oil. But unlike sautéing, you should continue to simmer them over low heat, covered, in their own juices for about 10-20 minutes (depending on quantity) such that they are soft and tender but not browned.
- Leeks have been around since 4000 B.C. and were a big part of the Egyptians’ and Mesopotamia diet.
- The leek is the national emblem of Wales; the cap badge of the Welsh Guards is actually a leek.
- From our September post: Leeks are traditional on Sephardic tables on Rosh Hashanah. Click to read more.
Here’s a recipe from Cecily Gans, a well known chef and foods educator, certified holistic health counselor and executive chef/owner of The Main Course Catering in Fairfield, CT. She has taught Culinary Arts at Staples High School for almost 15 years and developed the curriculum for that program.
Cecily Gans' recipe marries the bright flavors of leeks with mild, moist fish. She doubled the potato recipe with plenty to spare for those not watching their carb and fat intake.
- 1 pound cod loin, in 2 portions – monk fish or sea bass will also work well
- 2 small sprigs fresh thyme, picked
- Maldon salt, to taste
- Grains of paradise, to taste (or freshly ground black pepper)
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 6 leeks, trimmed to below the light green border, cut into ¼” rounds
- 1 small head fennel bulb, trimmed, core removed, finely julienned
- 1 small bunch Tuscan kale, finely julienned
- 2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2-3 tablespoons butter
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme, picked
- ¼ cup extra dry Vermouth
- 1 ½-2 pounds yukon gold potatoes, peeled, halved if large
- Up to 1 ½ cups heavy cream
- Up to 2 tablespoons butter
- Preheat the oven to 375º, (for the fish) ‘convection roast’ if you have that setting.
- Boil the potatoes, starting in an ample amount of cold water until fork tender (20-25 minutes, depending on your stovetop and size of potato).
- While you are waiting for the potatoes, coat the fish in the olive oil and place on a parchment covered pan. Sprinkle with salt, thyme and ground grains of paradise (or pepper) and place in the oven.
- In a large sauté pan, add the olive oil and heat until the viscosity lightens, add the leeks and sauté until wilted. Reduce the heat and caramelize slowly until golden brown. Move them to one side and add the butter.
- Add the fennel and thyme and combine, continuing until the fennel is cooked, but not wilted.
- Add the vermouth, stir and add the kale, continuing to mix until the kale is also cooked, but still has some volume. Season to taste.
- Place the cream in a small saucepan and heat with the allotted butter to a simmer.
- Drain the potatoes when tender.
- Remove the fish from the oven when it begins to flake if pressed very gently (approximately 15 minutes, depending on your oven).
- Place the potatoes through a fine ricer, add cream/butter mix slowly and gently fold in until the potatoes are soft and light. Depending on starch content, you may have some cream leftover. Do not over-mix, season with salt.
- To plate, put your potatoes on the bottom, approximately ¾ cup. Using a spatula gently place a piece of fish over the top of the potatoes and place the leek, fennel and kale mix on top.
This recipe is dairy, but can be made parve by using non-dairy margarine and almond milk instead of butter and cream.