Drumming Up Inspiration for Strange-Sounding Vegetables
A Week of Leeks:
Get to know Leeks, 7 Easy Ways
In Every Issue
Why We Love It
Partners in Flavor and Season
Picky Eater Tips
Money Saving Tricks
News from the Farm
White Fish and Leeks en Papillote
Roasted Leeks and Butternut Squash Salad
Buying the Best
Storing for Flavor
Prepping Tricks & Tips
Recipes, Recipes, Recipes
13 Easy Recipes: Make
Leeks a Mid-Winter Favorite
Who is this vegetable and why don’t we know it better?
Onions are such a ubiquitous and familiar vegetable. That's why it's hard to understand
why its close cousin, the leek, is hardly known at all.
Actually, in Europe, leeks are quite well-known, especially in France. Writing from
Paris, Chef David Lebovitz (of Chez Panisse fame) informs us that
here in France, leeks are cheap and plentiful. And used often. . . . [E]ven the most
lowly produce vendor sells leeks and just about everyone at my market seems to have
a few sticking out of their market basket.
Lebovitz's comments generated quite a stir among his American readers, as many proclaimed
their love and frequent use of leeks. While there is no doubt that leeks are becoming
more well-known, they are far from being the universal aromatic that onions are.
And even if they are familiar by sight, many of us lack the comfort and confidence
to use them beyond a narrow range of recipes. In fact, our familiarity with leeks
often begins and ends with Potato Leek Soup.
So let's get to know this cousin from across the pond a bit better.
Have you ever noticed how almost every recipe starts with a chopped onion? And maybe
some garlic, too? Maybe even some celery and carrots. These are all aromatics.
While they may be the first ingredients in a recipe, they usually aren't the stars.
Those roles go to the meat, fish or grain in a dish, or to other big-name vegetables
like eggplant, spinach, green beans or cabbage. The aromatics just plug along in
the chorus, providing the background flavor that makes everything else taste amazing.
This is where leeks and onions find common ground--serving in the unheralded but
vital role of aromatics. We just rarely see leeks as a beginning aromatic in American
cooking since they are not so common here. That may be changing as leeks become
more available and we begin to see how valuable an aromatic option they can be.
Meet the In-Laws
Close cousins? Really?
More Lily Family Relatives
It’s hard to believe onions and leeks come from the same family: one is short and
squat, the other tall and willowy. One we throw in a dark cupboard with the potatoes;
the other goes in the fresh vegetable drawer with the kale and collards. Thick skinned
onions can withstand high cooking temperatures while thin-skinned leeks must be treated
far more delicately at the cookstove.
Despite their differences, however, these cousins share one very important trait
in addition to their botanical connection: They are both aromatics.
The Lily Family
Practically every recipe rests on a foundation of sauteed aromatics, like the well-known
combination of onion, carrots and celery, known as mirepoix in French cooking. Other
aromatics, besides those listed in the text, include parsnips, diced ham, tomatoes,
shallots, mushrooms, peppers, chilies and ginger.
A Green Onion This is Not
While a leek bears little resemblance to its regular onion cousin, it looks quite
a bit like its green onion relation. In fact, people often think the two are the
same. A side-by-side inspection reveals how different they actually are:
Leeks are much larger than green onions, with the exception of baby leeks which are
about the same size.
Leek leaves are flat and solid, where green onions are round and hollow.
Green onions are a true bright green while leeks are a darker, blue-green color.
Cooking leeks is also quite different than green onion cooking. As explained in
the Cooking Basics section, leek cooking is all about low, slow and moist. Green
onions, on the other hand, are generally cooked very quickly (or used raw) to preserve
the zippy bite they add to foods. It is much rarer to see leeks used raw or only
lightly cooked since their flavor is fairly harsh without adequate cooking.
What Are Leeks Like?
The answer to this question depends on whether leeks are being used as a background
aromatic or the star of a dish. When used as aromatic, they do their job well, contributing
a subtle onion flavor and then melting nicely into the background flavors of a dish.
You may not even notice them. But sometimes leeks get a much-deserved starring
role, in which case they have a nicely distinguishable taste. While getting a feel
for this taste is best gained by experience, here is some starting information:
Taste–Milder and Sweeter than Onions While raw leeks are sharp-tasting like onions,
leeks that are properly cooked become mild, sweet and tender–even more so than cooked
onions. I also think leeks have more of a “fresh-herb” taste, with hints of tarragon
7 Days, 7 Ways to Taste-Test Leeks A great way to get a feel for the taste of leeks
is by experimenting with the simple side dishes in “A Week of Leeks.” There leeks
are used as the star ingredient in everything from Asian to Indian to classic French
Uses–Moving Beyond Savory French Dishes A quick on-line search and cookbook review
reveals that leeks are fairly confined to savory, French-type cooking (not surprisingly,
since they are so common there.) They show up in savory soups, pastas and casseroles
with foods like mushrooms, fish, chicken, tomatoes, cheese and of course potatoes.
However, there are signs of leeks' acceptance beyond its European roots, in recipes
from Indian and Asian to Thai and Mediterranean. Included in this month’s Recipes
are several non-traditional options which, along with “A Week of Leeks” may inspire
you to experiment a bit on your own.
Interestingly, leeks actually have two usable parts. The white bottoms are the most
commonly used part, but the green tops, have just as many uses.
2 Vegetables in 1
The most surprising discovery of this month’s vegetable adventures is that leeks
are actually two vegetables in one. There are the tender, sweet white bottoms (along
with the light green parts) that most recipes call for. However, there are also
the often overlooked greens, which are just as tasty and interesting. In fact, the
greens are even better suited for some recipes, particularly where the leeks will
be subjected to higher heats and longer cooking times, as in casseroles, soups, stir-fries
and long-cooking sauces. Because so little has been written on the subject, we devoted
an entire section to using the greens.
So in case you’ve never tried leeks or you’ve tried them unsuccessfully, may the
information in the following pages provide what’s needed to become familiar and comfortable
with this vegetable. It’s a special one that you don’t want to miss out on!