The Chic LEEK

This subtle onion relative adds a luxurious, silken texture to soups, sauces, salads and more

March 01, 2000|By Cathy Thomas | Cathy Thomas,Orange County Register

Leeks are a visual and culinary delight.

Their sturdy, deep green stalks form a chevron-patterned crown atop a pearly white, cylindrical bulb. A forest of dense roots forms a playful tangle at its base.

They look like green onions on growth-hormone therapy.

Related to both garlic and onions, leeks have a sweeter, more subtle flavor than their lily-family cousins. When cooked, they have a luxurious, silken texture. Raw, young leeks are spunky but not overpowering.

Leeks have been prized for thousands of years. In ancient Rome, Emperor Nero consumed prodigious amounts of leeks on a daily basis. It's said that he thought they would improve his singing voice. La, la, la, leek.

The formidable Charlemagne adored leeks, and by his royal edict, they were planted all over France, where they flourish today.

And in the sixth century, the Welsh made leeks their national emblem and wore them on their helmets when they rode into battle. They thought that the mighty leek helped them win wars.

A secret weapon? A crooning tonic? Maybe not. But whether they're braised, blanched, grilled, steamed or sauteed, their delicate, soft herbal flavor is ambrosia. Their flavor mingles to perfection with other ingredients in soups, sauces and salads. In main-course meat, fish or poultry dishes, too.

But leeks can be more costly than other members of the onion family. That's because they require a longer time to grow, according to Chino Guerrero, a California leek farmer.

"Leeks stay in the ground for six months to get to the right size, about 1 1/2 to 2 1/4 inches in diameter [white-bulb portion] ... or in winter, it can take as much as seven or eight months," Guerrero says. "A scallion [green onion] only takes three months. And because scallions are smaller, they take less [soil] space."

He grows leeks year-round, planting new 30-acre parcels every three to four weeks.

"Leeks taste so delicious, it's worth a little more money," he says, explaining that to his palate, leeks taste like a blend of gentle onion and without a strong garlic smell.

* Getting the most for your buck: The edible part of the leek is all the white part, plus the pale green portion above it. Sometimes the white portion is stubby, sometimes it's elongated. So, look for leeks with the largest usable portions. Avoid leeks with wilted greens or split bulbs.

The dark green stalks can be used in broth or stock making, but too often at my house, they end up carved into wacky garnishes or discarded in the trash.

If money is not an object, some markets carry "baby" leeks, which are almost pencil-thin; because they are very tender, they're delectable grilled.

* Storing those regal bundles: Store leeks, untrimmed and wrapped loosely in a plastic bag, in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator. They'll keep for one to two weeks, sometimes even longer. If the outer leaves turn yellow, pull them off; the remaining portion should be perfectly fine.

* Cleaning leeks: Leeks sometimes have dirt lodged between their layers. Trim off the root end and the dark-green stalks. Cut the remaining white and light-green portion in half lengthwise. Hold under cold running water, cut side up, pulling layers apart to wash away any dirt with one hand, holding them together with the other. Shake off water. If slicing, place cut side down on cutting board. Cut crosswise into thin slices.

* Partners: If you're in doubt about what ingredients to pair with cooked leeks, hot or cold, cookbook author Deborah Madison ("Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone," Broadway, 1997, $35) lists the following as good "leek partners": butter, olive oil, hazelnut oil, cream, creme fraiche, Parmesan, goat cheese, Cheddar cheese, Gruyere cheese, capers, wine, olives, mustard, curry spices, thyme, parsley, tarragon, saffron, potatoes, fennel, celery and eggs.

* Yields and harvests: One pound of leeks yields about two cups of chopped leeks. If you're in a farming mood, bury a leek bulb in potting soil, set it on a window ledge and keep it moist. Before long, you'll have green leek shoots that can be snipped and used like chives.

Chicken Breasts With Leeks

Serves 4

4 large, bone-in chicken breasts

1/3 cup flour seasoned with salt and pepper

3 tablespoons butter

4 thinly sliced leeks

12 baby carrots

1 clove minced garlic

2/3 cup Madeira

1 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth

1/4 cup heavy cream

salt and pepper to taste

chopped parsley, for garnish

Dredge chicken breasts in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Shake off excess flour and brown chicken on both sides in butter on medium-high heat in large, oven-proof Dutch oven or casserole. Remove chicken and add leeks; saute until softened. Add carrots, minced garlic and Madeira. Bring to simmer, scraping up any brown bits sticking to bottom of pan. Add chicken and chicken broth. Place sheet of aluminum foil over chicken and cover with lid. Bake in 375-degree oven 35 minutes.

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