Leeks, known scientifically as Allium porrum, are related to garlic, onions, shallots, and scallions. Leeks look like large scallions, having a very small bulb and a long white cylindrical stalk of superimposed layers that flows into green, tightly wrapped, flat leaves. Cultivated leeks are usually about 12 inches in length and one to two inches in diameter and feature a fragrant flavor that is reminiscent of shallots but sweeter and more subtle. Wild leeks, known as ramps, are much smaller in size, but have a stronger, more intense flavor. They are available for a short period of time each year and are often widely sought out at farmers markets when they are in season.
Leeks enjoy a long and rich history, one that can trace its heritage back through antiquity. Thought to be native to Central Asia, they have been cultivated in this region and in Europe for thousands of years.
Leeks were prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans and were especially revered for their beneficial effect upon the throat. The Greek philosopher Aristotle credited the clear voice of the partridge to a diet of leeks, while the Roman emperor Nero supposedly ate leeks everyday to make his voice stronger.
The Romans are thought to have introduced leeks to the United Kingdom, where they were able to flourish because they could withstand cold weather. Leeks have attained an esteemed status in Wales, where they serve as this country's national emblem. The Welsh regard for leeks can be traced back to a battle that they successfully won against that Saxons in 1620, during which the Welsh soldiers placed leeks in their caps to differentiate themselves from their opponents. Today, leeks are an important vegetable in many northern European cuisines and are grown in many European countries.
Fresh leeks should be stored unwashed and untrimmed in the refrigerator, where they will keep fresh for between one and two weeks. Wrapping them loosely in a plastic bag will help them to retain moisture. Cooked leeks are highly perishable, and even when kept in the refrigerator, will only stay fresh for about two days. Leeks may be frozen after being blanched for two to three minutes, although they will lose some of their desirable taste and texture qualities. Leeks will keep in the freezer for about three months.
Cut off green tops of leeks and remove outer tough leaves. Cut off root and cut leeks in half lengthwise. Fan out the leeks and rinse well under running water, leaving them intact. Before using leeks, it is essential to clean them well, as dirt, sand, and grit can collect between the layers. Cut leeks into 2-inch lengths. Holding the leek sections cut side up, cut lengthwise so that you end up with thin strips, known as the chiffonade cut, slicing until you reach the green portion. Make sure slices are cut very thin to shorten cooking time. Let leeks sit for at least 5 minutes before cooking.
A few quick serving ideas:
- Healthy sauté leeks and fennel. Garnish with fresh lemon juice and thyme.
- Add finely chopped leeks to salads.
- Make vichyssoise, a cold soup made from puréed cooked leeks and potatoes.
- Add leeks to broth and stews for extra flavoring.
- Braised leeks sprinkled with fennel or mustard seeds make a wonderful side dish for fish, poultry or steak.
- Add sliced leeks to your favorite omelet or frittata recipe.
Leek and Brie Bruschetta
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 6 medium leeks, (about 2 1/4 pounds), whites and light green parts only, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise, cleaned
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
- 4 large slices (1/2 inch thick) hearty country bread
- 8 ounces Brie cheese, thinly sliced
- 2 plum tomatoes, thinly sliced crosswise
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add leeks and thyme; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until leeks are very tender and just beginning to brown, 15 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat broiler with rack set 4 inches from heat. Arrange bread on a broilerproof baking sheet. Dividing evenly, layer bread with Brie, cooked leeks, and sliced tomatoes; drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.
Broil until cheese has melted and tomatoes start to brown, 5 to 8 minutes. Serve immediately.
Scalloped Potatoes with Leeks
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for baking dish
- 2 leeks, trimmed, thinly sliced, and rinsed well (about 1 cup)
- 6 russet potatoes (2 1/2 pounds), peeled and thinly sliced
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- Freshly ground pepper, to taste
- 8 ounces Gruyere cheese, shredded (about 3 cups)
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup homemade or low-sodium store-bought chicken stock
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 12-cup baking dish. Melt butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add leeks, and cook until translucent, 3 to 4 minutes.
Arrange 1/3 of the potatoes in dish, slightly overlapping slices. Sprinkle with 1/2 of the salt, 1/2 of the nutmeg, and pepper, followed by 1/2 of the leeks and 1/3 of the cheese. Repeat. Top with remaining potatoes in a spiral. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Combine cream and stock. Pour over cheese and potatoes. Cover with parchment and foil. (Mixture can be refrigerated overnight.)
Bake for 30 minutes. Increase temperature to 425 degrees, uncover, and cook until top is golden brown and potatoes are tender, about 45 minutes. Let rest for 15 to 30 minutes before serving.
Spoon Bread with Leeks & Corn
- Unsalted butter, for pan
- 3 large eggs, separated
- 2 1/2 cups milk
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup yellow cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 cup fresh corn, (cut from 2 or 3 yellow or white ears)
- 2 leeks, halved lengthwise, and sliced
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 6-cup baking dish. Lightly beat egg yolks; set aside.
In a saucepan over medium heat, bring 2 cups of milk, cayenne, and salt to a boil. Sprinkle cornmeal into liquid, stirring constantly, and cook until thick and smooth, about 3 minutes. Stir in remaining 1/2 cup milk, baking powder, and egg yolks.
In a mixing bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. Stir 1 large spoonful of whites into cornmeal mixture, then gently fold in remaining whites.
Pour half of the batter into prepared dish. Sprinkle on corn and leeks. Cover with remaining batter. Bake until set and golden brown, about 35 to 40 minutes. Serve immediately.
Chicken & Leeks with Creme Fraiche
- 1 whole chicken (about 4 pounds), cut into 8 pieces (each breast half cut in half crosswise), rinsed well and patted dry
- Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 4 small leeks (about 1 pound), white and pale-green parts only, cut crosswise into 3-inch pieces, rinsed well
- 1 cup good-quality hard apple cider
- 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh thyme leaves
- 1/2 cup Creme Fraiche
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Season chicken with salt and pepper. Melt butter with the oil in a large enameled cast-iron Dutch oven over medium-high heat until just bubbling. Add half the chicken pieces, skin sides down; cook, turning once, until golden, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer chicken pieces to a plate; set aside. Repeat with remaining chicken pieces; add to plate. Remove pot from heat; let cool slightly.
Return pot to medium-low heat, and add leeks. Cook, stirring frequently, until leeks begin to soften and are pale golden, about 3 minutes. Add hard cider and thyme. Move leeks to edges of pot, and add all the chicken pieces to pot, skin sides down. Arrange leeks over chicken. Cover, and cook 15 minutes (if liquid is bubbling rapidly, reduce heat to low). Turn chicken pieces, and cook until breasts are cooked through, about 5 minutes more. Transfer chicken breasts to a plate, and cover to keep warm. Adjust leeks so they are submerged in liquid. Cook, uncovered, until the remaining chicken pieces are tender and cooked through, about 10 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer all of the chicken to a warm serving platter. Remove leeks from pot, and arrange the leeks around chicken. Cover with foil, and set aside. Return pot to medium heat. Cook, uncovered, until liquid has reduced by about half (to a scant 2/3 cup), 8 to 10 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low. Whisk in the creme fraiche and parsley. Ladle pan sauce over chicken and leeks. Serve immediately.
Vichyssoise (Cold Potato-Leek Soup)
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 8 leeks, white part only, cleaned and thinly sliced
- 2 medium potatoes, cut into small cubes
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 4 fresh chives, finely chopped
- 1 pinch nutmeg
- salt and fresh pepper
In a large, heavy bottom pot, melt butter over medium-low heat. Once butter is melted, add the leeks and sweat for 5 minutes, making sure they do not take on any color.
Add potatoes and cook for a minute or two, stirring a few times.
Stir in the chicken broth and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to a simmer. Cook on low heat, gently simmering for 35 minutes, or until the leeks and potatoes are very soft. Allow to cool for a few minutes.
Slowly, and in SMALL batches, puree the soup at a high speed in the blender. Do this bit by bit, never filling the blender too high. Make sure the benders lid is on, and lean on the top when you turn on. If not the burn you will get is awful, and a most frequent accident in even professional kitchens.
Return soup to the cooking pot and whisk in cream and nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper. Return to a boil, reduce to simmer and cook 5 minutes. If you want to thin soup out, add more broth, if needed.
Transfer soup to the mixing bowl an chill over the ice bath, stirring occasionally. When soup is at Room temperature, and only at room temperature, cover in plastic wrap and put int the refrigerator to cool.
Check seasoning, sprinkle with chives and serve in chilled bowls.
This soup DOES get better over time. Keep covered with plastic, not foil in the refrigerator, or it will pick up other tastes.