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Leek Preview
By Pat Eby | Photo by Greg Rannells
Posted On: 06/01/2011   


­­Until two years ago, leeks showed up in two dishes at my house: vichyssoise in the summer and potato-leek soup in the winter. I bought fat, somewhat tattered leeks from the grocery a few times a year just for these soups.

Then I discovered locally grown leeks at Soulard Farmers’ Market, and later at the Kirkwood Farmers’ Market, in mid-June. The bulbs nearly white, the necks gradated from pale creaminess to the green of emerging spring leaves to flat-folded emerald fans at the top – these slender leeks looked nothing like their bloated supermarket counterparts.

Over the summer, I popped bunches of leeks into my market bag and challenged myself to move beyond the soups to new tastes. The subtle oniony flavor and pliant finish of chopped leeks added depth to Sunday morning omelets, and chopped leeks stirred into potato pancakes tasted great. The locally grown leeks kept well, too. Uncooked, they stayed fresh for a week or more, a plus when market fever hits and you buy too many things.

When raw, leeks feel soft and pliant. Cooked, they retain a satiny texture and a smooth shape. Unlike onions and shallots that can “melt” into a dish, leeks keep a consistency you notice. Even pureéd, they retain substance.

For a tasting dinner, I chose leeks with bulbs no larger than 1½ inches wide with white fleshy roots and smooth fans. Recipes ranged from the simplest confit to a complex layered lasagna where individual leek leaves stood in for the noodles.

The confit, from a Molly Wizenberg recipe in Bon Appétit, used only butter, kosher salt, leeks cut in quarter-inch rounds and a smidge of water. After just 40 minutes on the stovetop, they were done. We slathered the confit on rustic bread from a local Bosnian bakery. A pear-and-leek marmalade with a hint of jalapeños tasted great on crackers with cheeses; it also spiced up a simple chicken entrée.

Leeks poached with half a lemon, five or six stems of Italian flat-leaf parsley, some peppercorns, a few cloves, a little white wine and water made a memorable salad when paired with baby lettuces, roasted red peppers and a rustic Dijon vinaigrette. I discovered poached leeks can be kept only a day or two before they start to slime, so poach sparingly or eat them soon after.

Look for leeks in mid-June from On the Wind at the Kirkwood Farmers’ Market. Farmer Ron Jones planted three varieties of leeks this year; two of them, King Richard and Tadorna, mature early. The third, Lexton, will be available in the fall. Because I didn’t know much about leeks, Jones read to me from his plant bible: “Leeks, a biennial herb of the lily family, with a long harvest season, summer through fall. Native to Switzerland.”

Like me, Jones favors his leeks in soups. He often mixes in chopped leeks with scrambled eggs for breakfast as well. “Leeks are easy to grow,” he said, “but they need constant water, so I add humus and organic matter, hilling around the plants as they grow.”

Richie Hahn of Hahn Farm will also offer leeks this summer and fall, although his first planting will mature in late June. “We’re growing Lancelot, a hybrid we started from seed, for early sales. Late summer through fall, we’ll have Bulgarian Giant as well.” Customer requests drive what Hahn plants each year, which is why he’s added more leeks.

Traditionally, Hahn Farms sells produce at the Ferguson Farmers’ Market on Saturdays and at the Wentzville Flea Market on Sundays, but this year, the family has expanded to Soulard Market on Saturdays as well.

Swanky, sophisticated, toothsome – leeks add so much to summertime fare. Venture beyond soups this year. Delicious dishes await.


Leek Timbales
Makes 6
Adapted from a recipe originally published in The Cuisine of California by Diane Rossen Worthington

INGREDIENTS

3 to 4 medium-sized leeks
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 cup low-sodium chicken stock
4 large eggs
1½ cups half and half
1¼ cups finely grated Gruyère cheese, divided
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. white pepper
1/8 tsp. nutmeg (or less, to taste)
¼ lb. spinach leaves, uncooked
8 to 10 fresh chives for garnish, snipped into 2-inch lengths

PREPARATION

• Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
• Trim the root end and the dark green part from the leeks. Split them in half lengthwise and rinse thoroughly under cold water, separating the layers to remove any dirt. Finely chop the leeks.
• Melt the butter in a 3-quart saucepan, then stir in the chopped leeks to coat. Add the chicken stock, cover and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes or until tender. Set aside.
• In a medium bowl, beat the eggs vigorously with a fork. Add the half and half, 1 cup of grated cheese, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Stir to mix thoroughly, then add the chopped leeks.
• Butter six ramekins on the bottoms and sides. Ladle the custard mixture into each cup.
• Place the ramekins in a shallow baking dish, then add very hot water to a depth of ½ inch or so. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the custard is firm and lightly browned.
• Layer spinach leaves on each of six plates. Run a knife around the edge of each ramekin, then invert and unmold each on top of the spinach.
• Top each timbale with chive snips and a sprinkling of grated Gruyère. Serve immediately.

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