Mild-mannered leeks make good companions


September 19, 1990|By Jean Thompson

Garlic tempests and onions shout, but leeks whisper. When a breeze of flavoring is preferred to a windstorm, many chefs turn to this subtler member of the aromatic allium family.

"Leeks have a very distinct flavor, more refined than a regulagarden onion," says Michael Archung, the chef at Northwoods restaurant in Annapolis. For a savory soup d'jour, he marries leeks with red pepper and vermicelli in a chicken broth. Sauteed with mushrooms, capers, white wine and a little lemon juice, leeks dress up a salmon, he says. In many dishes served at the restaurant, "we use them in place of onions or scallions."

The leek has been called "the forgotten onion." Food historiansuggest it was popular among ancient Greeks and Romans. Leeks found their way in to Shakespeare's writing. And to modern-day fanciers of Irish, Welsh, Scottish, French, northern Spanish and other European cuisines, the leek is no stranger. But stand in line at a grocery scanner with this vegetable in your basket, and someone -- possibly the cashier -- will begin asking questions. What is that? And what do you do with it?

It looks like a gargantuan scallion, with broad leaves of bright to dark green tapering to a smooth white stalk and bulbous end. Whiskerlike roots hang from the base. Don't be dismayed if even in the fanciest of groceries the leeks are gritty. Soil gradually banked around them while they grow shields them from the sun, blanching the root ends.

Leeks take to cool weather, and cultivated carefully can survive frost, making them perfect for autumn, early winter and spring dishes. They are available all year, but supplies peak from September through November, according to the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association.

Many cookbooks suggest there is little use for the leek's greens. They advise that the white portion of the leek is the most delectable. And some suggest that leeks aren't tasty raw.

But contemporary chefs have been knocking these prejudices down. Several suggest adding thinly sliced white leek rounds (or slices of baby leeks) to salads.

For the color, Mr. Archung says, he adds chopped green leaves to his soups. "They add texture and the color holds up better during cooking," he says. Edna Lewis, a New York chef who has Virginia roots, included a recipe for steamed leek greens in her country-style cookbook, "In Pursuit of Flavor" (Knopf, 1988).

And at a food conference early this year, one cookbook author offered more ingenious suggestions for leeks. Slit the edge of the tube-shaped green leaf, flatten it out and then cut it into squares, says Marlene Brown, author of the "International Produce Cookbook and Guide" (HPBooks, 1989). Steam them briefly. Then fill them with vegetable or seafood filling, wrap them up in tiny bundles and tie them with scallions.

(Older greens can be bitter, so choose fresh, brightly colored leeks and discard any tough outer leaves, several chefs say. Cut off the white stem and save it for another use. Then trim away about 2 inches off the tops and the bright green part at the bottom, leaving the tastiest part of the greens for cooking.)

Despite experimentation that is saving the green tops of leaves from the compost heap, the sweeter white portion of the leek remains the most popular with most home cooks. Its traditional mate is the spud. Potato-leek soups are legion the world over: In Scotland, it's called cock-a-leekie; in France, vichyssoise and potage parmentier.

Some Baltimore-area chefs prefer the leek's light, clean taste without the fuss of other ingredients. Roland Jeannier, owner and chef at Jeannier's near Charles Village, is among them.

"In France, we call it the asparagus of the poor," Mr. Jeannier says. Leeks perform well as appetizer when prepared like asparagus and dressed with a little lemon juice, or a vinaigrette ,, or hollandaise.

The leek's appeal is its versatility, he says. Mild-mannered leeks won't overpower other flavors in a stuffing, omelet, casserole, stew or souffle the way a rowdy onion will. They can be steamed or sauteed to a white or golden softness to perk up salmon and other fish.

For Mr. Jeannier, little goes to waste: "You can use the bouillonfrom leeks you have cooked as the basis for a soup, or just drink it -- the way some Southerners drink pot liquor. "I like it as a drink, chilled or hot," just as his grandmother used to serve when he was a boy in Provence, he says.

Home cooks "rediscover" leeks every few years, Mr. Jeannieand Mr. Archung say. In their kitchens, however, leeks are staples, sitting in the crisper, ready to save a lackluster meal, inspire creativity, or fill in when an elegant appetizer is needed on short notice.

***Leek and vermicelli soup

Chef Michael Archung served this soup recently at Northwoods restaurant in Annapolis. Homemade chicken broth is more flavorful, but canned may be used successfully. You may prefer to use a low-salt canned broth.

*Serves four.

4 leeks, green and white parts

1 tablespoon butter

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