Take a leek

Give it time and tenderness and it can be tantalizingly sweet.

Leek burgers (photo credit: Noam Levy)
Leek burgers
(photo credit: Noam Levy)
I find that leek saves the day in the dead of winter, when the popular summer vegetables don't taste half as good. I'm fascinated by the tantalizingly sweet flavor and the silken texture that this humble green stalk introduces into every long-cooked preparation. The drawback is that leeks are virtually multilayered sand traps. The best way to clean them is to peel off the first two or three layers, which are usually tough and sandy. Wash the outside well. Now, if you're about to chop the leeks finely, you can first make a cut starting 2 cm. from the base, and, going all the way to the top end, split the leek in half (the base will hold everything together). Now you're able to rinse the inside thoroughly. When cutting it into cylinder-like shapes, gently run water through each cylinder and hope for the best. I don't throw out the green tops. I used to work under a chef who called that practice "cash in the trash." The tops are wonderful for making a quick veg. stock. LEEK BURGERS SERVED WITH 'LEEK RINGS' This burger is an extremely versatile everyday family workhorse. You can use all leeks or add ground beef, chicken, lamb, fish or tofu. The latter options, when grilled (a gas grill or a grilling ribbed skillet can be very practical here) are a very healthy way to make an easily made dish that can satisfy a family. I'm sure you'll fall in love with these crunchy leek rings. Like tiny onion rings, they are surprising and a lot of fun when you decide to go crazy and deep-fry. For the burgers 4 2 kg. medium sized leeks, cleaned and roughly chopped (2-cm. pieces) 4 250 gr. ground beef or whatever else you're using (ask for 20% lamb or beef fat in the mixture if you don't mind it health wise) 4 1 egg, lightly beaten 4 1⁄2 bunch fresh coriander, washed and chopped finely 4 1 garlic clove, minced 4 Up to 1 cup bread crumbs 4 1⁄2 cup olive oil (or canola oil) for frying (no need if grilling) 4 Flour (no need if grilling) 4 Salt and freshly ground pepper For the leek rings 4 1 leek, top removed, washed, and sliced into thin rings (about 0.5 cm) 4 About 6 Tbsp. flour 4 Enough canola oil to deep fry The burgers: 1. Place a large pot to boil and salt the water well. When the water boils, add the leek and cook until tender. Strain, and let drain for 5 minutes. Squeeze all the water out, and chop finely. 2. Mix the leek, beef, coriander, garlic and egg. The mixture should be firm enough to easily make patties out of. If it's runny, add some bread crumbs to adjust the consistency. Season with pepper. There's no need for salt since cooking water was salted. Form medium-sized flat patties (around 150 gr. each). Rest, refrigerated, for at least an hour. 3. The tastiest way would be to charcoal grill. If that's not an option, a heavy grilling skillet will do a good job. Another way is to lightly coat the patties in a little flour, and fry them in a skillet with a thin layer of olive or canola oil. Whatever method you choose, cook for 4-5 minutes on each side, and serve immediately. The leek rings:LEEKS BRAISED IN WHITE WINE AND FRESH SAGE WITH OLIVE OIL AND CHICKEN STOCK 4 4 large or 6 medium leeks, washed, but not split 4 3⁄4 cup olive oil (can substituted 150 gr. butter, if using veg. stock) 4 2 cloves garlic, minced 4 6 fresh sage leaves (can substituted thyme, oregano or rosemary) 4 350 ml. (about 2 glasses) tasty white wine (an inexpensive choice could be the Dalton Canaan or any reasonable Chardonnay) 4 1 cup chicken/veg. stock 4 Salt and freshly ground pepper 1. Preheat your oven to 180ºC. 2. Grab the leeks, and cut off the dark green tops. Finely slice the dark green leaves. Cut the white stalk into 4 cm long cylinders. 3. Add about 4 Tbsp. of the oil (or butter) to a skillet set on medium heat. Sauté the greens for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sage (or other herb) to the pan and turn off the heat. Let the flavors steep in the pan for a couple of minutes. 4. Lay out the cooked leek tops in a thin layer in a wide and shallow roasting pan. Arrange the leek pieces on top in a single layer and pour in the rest of the olive oil, the stock and the wine. Season with salt and pepper. 5. Cut out a piece of parchment paper to cover the roasting pan snugly and place it on top. Bake for 35 minutes. The leeks should be tender, moist, silken sweet with delicate overtones of wine and herb. Variations: Easy side leeks Making a roast chicken or beef is a perfect occasion for a side of leeks! The roasting liquids (called fond in French) are a wonderful flavoring base. Take the meat out of the roasting pan and arrange leek cylinders in the pan. Top with herbs, olive oil and stock, and bake as described in the recipe. LEEK SOUP 1. Use the butter, veg. stock, thyme and leek combination in the recipe above. While the leek is baking in the oven, peel and dice 3 potatoes (or Jerusalem artichokes or celery root). Cook thoroughly in salted boiling water and strain. 2. Place the potatoes, the braised leeks, and the veg. stock (or water) in a pot. Cook for 10 minutes and puree. Strain and bring back to a boil. Add about 100 ml. heavy cream, season. Add more hot stock if too thick.