Cooking Class: A leek lesson

Although cleaning it may be somewhat tricky, this vegetable is worth the trouble.

leeks with mushrooms_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
leeks with mushrooms_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Leeks are delicious and beautiful but some cooks find them intimidating. Although most of the students in my latest cooking class were experienced in the kitchen, they were eager to see how to clean and cut leeks. It’s useful to know that the bright green tops are usually tough and are best reserved for cooking in broth, and that leeks must be rinsed very thoroughly, as their layers can trap sand.
I became familiar with leeks when I moved to Israel from my birthplace, Washington, DC. My neighbors showed me how to use them in chicken soup and in patties. Many historians believe that leeks originated in the Mideast or the Mediterranean area. The Romans are thought to have introduced the vegetable to Britain, and it has long been used in many northern and central European countries, including France, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland and Sweden.
The Irish are very fond of leeks too. My friend Darina Allen, author of The Complete Book of Irish Country Cooking, wrote that leeks are frequently referred to in early Irish manuscripts; one variety, which can be found growing wild in some parts of Ireland, “is thought to have been introduced to Ireland in pre-Christian times.” Leeks are central to one of the most famous of early Ireland’s broths, which were a mainstay of the diet.
The broth’s name, brotchan roy, means “a broth fit for a king.” To make it, Allen cooks leeks briefly in butter, simmers them with oatmeal in stock, milk or water and seasons the broth with salt, pepper, powdered mace and parsley.
But the greatest leek lovers might be the Welsh. Leeks are that country’s emblem and are worn by the Welsh on their national holiday, St. David’s Day. There are several explanations for this, all mentioning that the country’s soldiers wore leeks in their helmets to identify themselves in an ancient battle against the Saxons.
Jane Grigson, author of English Food, gives a recipe from Anglesey, an island off the coast of North Wales, of butter-stewed potatoes and leeks served with hardboiled eggs browned in cheddar cheese sauce. Her Welsh chicken and leek pie is made of poached chicken and cooked tongue covered with cooked sliced leeks and baked with a covering of pie crust.
Because cooked leeks have a subtle taste, they make a good accompaniment for delicate fish or chicken dishes. In my class I stewed the leeks in a little olive oil and served them with braised salmon.
Stewing in a covered pan is a useful technique for cooking leeks, which brings out their fine flavor. Allen favors this method too. She serves butterstewed leeks as a side dish or combines them with mashed potatoes and boiling milk to make a dish called leek champ.
Potatoes may be the leek’s most popular partner. The most famous dish using the pair is the chilled leek and potato soup known as vichyssoise. I like to use this duo in a leek and potato kugel. Georges Prade, author of 180 recettes de cuisine suisse, presents two Swiss entrees called papets, made of leeks and potatoes cooked with local sausages in broth.
Choose leeks that are firm, with brightcolored green tops. The most useful are those with plenty of white and pale green and a smaller proportion of the dark green part. Store them wrapped in the refrigerator. They will keep for up to a week.
This mixture of butter-stewed leeks and sauteed mushrooms is flavored with a touch of garlic and white wine. Serve it as a side dish or mixed gently with cooked rice or pasta. It also makes a fine filling for omelets, crepes or blintzes; the recipe makes enough to fill 12 small crepes or blintzes.
✔ 700 gr. leeks, white and light green parts ✔ 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter ✔ Salt and freshly ground pepper✔ 2 tsp. fresh thyme, or 1⁄2 tsp. dried thyme ✔ 3 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil ✔ 225 gr. mushrooms, halved and cut in 3 mm. slices ✔ 1 Tbsp. minced garlic ✔ 1⁄4 cup dry white wine
Cut leeks in half lengthwise, rinse well, and cut in 6 mm. slices. Soak sliced leeks in cold water to cover for 5 minutes to remove any sand. Lift into a colander or large strainer, rinse, and drain well.
Melt butter in a medium-size heavy skillet or saute pan. Add leeks, pinch of salt and pepper, and thyme. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until leeks are very soft but not brown, about 15 minutes. Transfer leek mixture to a large bowl.
Wipe skillet clean. Add 2 Tbsp. olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, salt and pepper. Saute, stirring often, until any liquid that escapes from mushrooms has evaporated and they begin to brown, about 6 minutes. Add 1 tsp.
olive oil, quickly stir in garlic, and saute for 30 seconds. Add white wine and bring to boil, stirring. Cook over high heat until wine is completely absorbed by mushroom mixture. Remove from heat and transfer to bowl of leeks.
Mix leeks with mushrooms. Stir in remaining Tbsp. of olive oil and a pinch of pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Serve hot.
Makes 20 to 24 patties
This recipe is from Benny Saida’s book (in Hebrew) Food of the Balkans. Saida grinds the leeks, potato and soaked bread for the patty mixture in a meat grinder. If you don’t have one, you can mash the potatoes with a potato masher or in a food mill, and puree the bread with the cooked leeks in a food processor; slice the leeks thin before cooking them so that they will be easy to puree. Do not puree the potatoes in the food processor, as it can make them gluey.
To check the seasoning of the mixture, you can fry a test patty, taste it, and add more salt and pepper to the mixture if needed. After frying the patties, it’s best to transfer them to a plate lined with paper towels to absorb the excess oil.
✔ 2 kg leeks ✔ 3 slices bread ✔ 2 potatoes, cooked in their skins in water, then peeled (see Note below) ✔ 1⁄2 kg. ground beef ✔ 2 or 3 eggs ✔ salt and freshly ground pepper ✔ 1 to 3 tsp. bread crumbs (optional) ✔ Oil for frying
Use only the white part of the leeks in this recipe; reserve the green parts to make broth. Clean leeks thoroughly. Cut them in pieces and put in a saucepan. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook for 15 minutes. Drain well and cool.
Put bread in a bowl, cover with water and let soak for a few minutes. Remove from water and squeeze dry.
Grind the leeks, bread and cooked potato in a meat grinder and transfer to a bowl. Add the ground meat and 2 eggs. Add salt and pepper and mix well. If the mixture is too dry, add the third egg and mix well. If mixture is too sticky, add bread crumbs by spoonfuls until it can easily be shaped. Shape the mixture into round or elongated patties.
Heat 4 or 5 Tbsp. oil in a large, heavy skillet. Fry the patties in batches on medium to medium-high heat until they are golden brown on both sides and the meat is cooked through; remove one and cut it to check its color. Add more oil on the skillet between batches if needed. Serve hot.
Note: To cook potatoes, put them in a saucepan with water to generously cover and a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium heat for 25 to 35 minutes or until tender. Drain, let stand until cool enough to handle, and peel.
Cleaning Leeks
Remove the very dark green parts of leeks. Save them for making stock. Split leeks lengthwise twice by cutting with a sharp knife, beginning about 2.5 cm. from the root end and cutting toward the green end, leaving the root end attached.
Dip leeks repeatedly in a large bowl of cold water. Check the layers to be sure no sand is left. If sand remains, soak the leeks in cold water for several minutes. Next separate the leaves under running water to rinse away any clinging dirt, and drain. Cut off the root ends.
After you slice the leeks, if they still seem to have sand stuck between the layers, soak the slices in a bowl of water and then lift them out, so that the sand falls to the bottom of the bowl.