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A vegetable of delicious ambiguity: The leek

Sometimes a vegetable perfectly matches its true season, bestowed upon us from plant or earth like a metaphor. After the solemn cold of winter, when farmers-market stalls seem to rescind their promises, leeks emerge from the earth, dirt-clad and single-minded, as vertical as hope.

Leek tartare
Leek tartareRead more

Sometimes a vegetable perfectly matches its true season, bestowed upon us from plant or earth like a metaphor. After the solemn cold of winter, when farmers-market stalls seem to rescind their promises, leeks emerge from the earth, dirt-clad and single-minded, as vertical as hope.

Without the raw force of an onion or the hollow delicacy of a bouquet of chives, leeks rely on subtlety and fortitude. A leek is by its nature a patient vegetable. Slow-growing underground, able to bide its time once out of it, a leek also can hold up to myriad cooking techniques, as if the very patience that held it through the slow winter has become alloyed in the leek's own concentric rings.

Serene, subtly aromatic, almost cool to the touch, a leek can be a revelation in the kitchen, with a wealth of nuanced flavor that belies its humble appearance.

Yet the leek, more than many other vegetables, clings to the earth that engenders it, as if reluctant to be separated from its origins. Cut through a leek, particularly a mature one, and you'll find, shot through the ringed layers, a residue of the dirt and sand in which it grew, like the footprint of a creation myth.

Leeks are often grown in little hills, mounded by farmers to increase the proportion of white stem to green leaf. The dirt or sand (leeks are often grown in particularly sandy dirt or sand) becomes embedded within the layers of the leek as it grows. This accounts for the need to soak leeks thoroughly before you cook them.

If the stubborn, earth-shot quality of a leek is part of its appeal, the leek's leaves also have a story to tell. V-shaped, they rise out of the roots like folded sheaths, growing darker the farther they get from home - a tangible buffer between pale roots and the sunlit world.

Absolved from the earth, washed clean and shorn from the blue-green tresses of its leaves, a leek is ready for transformation.

Cooking a leek is not like taming an onion or preserving the delicate ephemerality of fresh herbs or greens. It's about capturing the essence of a vegetable that contains equal parts resilience and grace.

A bowlful of steamed mussels becomes extraordinary when married with leeks. Cut in thin strips and sauteed in butter, the leeks give structure to the wine broth as well as a hint of color - the leeks on the small black mussels are like thick brush strokes of lime green on obsidian. The dish distills a leek's brightest nature.

Blanched and minced into a thick pâté shot through with fresh ginger, vinegar and chives, leeks showcase their cooler qualities, becoming smoother and more refined. Or seared and then braised in the oven in broth laced with thyme and shallots, they demonstrate profound earthiness.

After a good braise, a leek develops warm, caramel notes, becoming buttery and rich and aromatic. Its flavor doesn't dissipate; it reaches its full potential. Like an early spring day that can shift in an hour from pallid reticence to honeyed vigor, a leek is not mercurial but capable of sudden moments of revelation.

Leek Tartare

Makes 3 servings


4 medium leeks (about 1 to 1 1/2 inches indiameter)

1 shallot, minced

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon mayonnaise

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

2 tablespoons minced chives

3 drops Tabasco sauce

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/3 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


1. Fill the bottom of a medium-sized steamer or double boiler with enough water to steam (but not so much that the water touches the steamer basket). Heat over medium heat so that the water comes to a simmer by the time you've prepared the leeks.

2. Cut off the dark green tops of the leeks and discard or set aside for another use. Cut off and discard the root ends. Cut each leek in half lengthwise. Place each half cut side down and slice crosswise into 1-inch pieces. You should have about 1 1/2 cups of leeks.

3. Fill a large bowl with warm water and add the leeks to the water. Using your hands, separate the layers of leeks, and swish them in the water; the sand and dirt will fall to the bottom of the bowl. Let stand briefly. Then, with your hands or a skimmer, lift the leeks from the water without disturbing the sediment that has settled at the bottom.

4. Line a baking sheet with plastic wrap. Set a steamer basket in the pot over the simmering water. Place the leeks in the basket, cover, and steam for about 8 minutes, or until they are bright and almost translucent. Spread the leeks evenly on the lined baking sheet, and place in the refrigerator to cool, about 15 minutes.

5. When they're cool, chop the leeks until they are a thick mushy consistency. Place them on a double layer of cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel, and wring out the excess water.

6. Combine the leeks, shallot, and olive oil in a medium bowl. Stir in the vinegar, mustard, mayonnaise, sugar, ginger, chives, Tabasco, salt and pepper. Mix well. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

7. Place a 3-inch ring mold or round cookie cutter on a plate, fill with about 1/3 cup of the tartare, and smooth the top. Remove the cutter, and repeat with the remaining plates.

Per serving: 275 calories, 2 grams protein, 19 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 22 grams fat, 2 milligrams cholesterol, 411 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber


Braised Leeks

Makes 4 servings


6 medium leeks (about 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter)

1/2 teaspoon salt, divided

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 shallot, sliced

1 tablespoon thyme leaves

1/3 cup white wine

1 cup vegetable stock or water

2 small red rose potatoes or similar waxy potatoes

1 tablespoon unsalted butter


1. Trim the roots from the leeks, keeping the bottom intact. Trim the green tops so that the remaining leek is about 4 inches long. Split the leek in half lengthwise. Run the leeks under cold water to clean and dislodge any dirt. Drain, place in a bowl and toss with 1/4 teaspoon salt.

2. Heat a large (12- to 14-inch) saute pan over medium heat then add the olive oil. Place the leeks in the pan cut-side down, in batches if necessary. Cook over medium heat until caramelized, about 12 to 15 minutes. Turn the leeks and cook for a few seconds on the other side. Remove the leeks from the pan and place, cut-side up, in a shallow baking dish (about 9-by-13-inch).

3. In the same saute pan, lightly saute the sliced shallot over medium-high heat for about 1 minute. Add the thyme and the white wine and cook about 1 to 2 minutes, until the wine reduces slightly. Add the stock or water and bring the mixture to a quick boil. Remove from heat.

4. Pour the liquid over the leeks in the baking dish until the leeks are not quite covered, adding more stock or water if necessary. Place in a 400-degree oven and cook until the root ends of the leeks can be pierced with very little resistance by a knife, about 25 to 30 minutes.

5. While the leeks are braising, cut the potatoes into 1/2-inch slices. Place them in a medium saucepan and fill with cold water, covering the potatoes by 1 inch. Season the water with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook over high heat until the water boils and test for doneness by gently piercing with a knife. If necessary, reduce the heat to medium and cook for 2 or 3 minutes longer until done. Drain and set aside.

6. When the leeks are done, heat the saute pan over medium heat. Add the butter, and when it is melted, add the potato slices. Saute until lightly browned, about 1 to 2 minutes, turning as needed to cook both sides.

7. Add the leeks and braising liquid to the pan and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste before serving.

Note: Leek stock can be substituted for the vegetable stock or water but will need to be made ahead of time by simmering the green tops of 6 medium leeks in 6 cups water, covered, for about 3 hours.

Per serving (with water): 283 calories, 4 grams protein, 35 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 324 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber


Mussels with Leeks and White Wine

Makes 4 servings


1 (12-inch) rustic baguette

3 tablespoons good-quality olive oil

5 pounds small black mussels

4 leeks

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

2 large shallots, minced (about 1/4 cup)

6 garlic cloves, minced (about 1/4 cup)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 cups dry white wine

2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley


1. Slice the baguette on the diagonal into half-inch slices, brush each slice with a little olive oil and grill the bread on a grill or in a pan. Reserve, keeping warm.

2. Rinse the mussels under cold water, scrub them if necessary, and pull off and discard beards. Discard any open or broken mussels. Reserve.

3. Cut off the green parts of the leeks and discard or save for leek broth; cut off and discard the roots. Cut the leeks in half lengthwise and peel off the tough outer layer if necessary. Submerge in a bowl of tap water or in a sink and rinse off any dirt. Drain the leeks and cut them crosswise into thin slices, about 1/8 inch thick. (This needn't be exact.)

4. In a large (6-quart) pot over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the leeks and saute until soft and translucent, turning the heat to low, about 5 to 7 minutes.

5. Add the shallots, garlic, salt and pepper and cook for another 2 minutes.

6. Increase the heat to high, then add the mussels and the white wine. Stir to combine, cover and cook 5 to 7 minutes, until the mussels open up, shaking the pot so that the mussels cook evenly. When the mussels have opened, remove the pot from the heat and add the parsley.

7. Serve immediately either in the pot or ladled into soup plates, with slices of grilled baguette for the leeks and sauce and a big bowl for the mussel shells.

Note: Allow about 1 pound of mussels per person plus extra because some mussels may not open during cooking. Small black mussels such as Prince Edward Island (PEI) or Maine are best.

Per serving: 1,097 calories, 74 grams protein, 69 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 49 grams fat, 223 milligrams cholesterol, 2,432 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber EndText