Sometimes a vegetable perfectly matches its true season. After the solemn cold of winter, when farmers' market stalls seem to rescind their promises, leeks emerge from the earth, dirt-clad and single-minded.
Slow-growing underground, able to bide its time once out of it, a leek also can hold up to myriad cooking techniques.
If the stubborn, riddled-with-earth quality of a leek is part of its appeal -- a quiet reminder of the necessary proximity of food to farm -- the leek's leaves also have a story to tell. V-shaped, they rise out of the roots like folded sheaths, growing darker the farther they get from home.
After a good braise, a leek develops warm, caramel notes, becoming buttery and rich and aromatic. Its flavor doesn't dissipate; it reaches its full potential.
Amy Scattergood writes for the Los Angeles Times. Sun reporter Kate Shatzkin contributed to this article.
6 medium leeks (about 1 to 11 / 2 inches in diameter)
1 / 2 teaspoon salt (divided use), plus more to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 shallot, sliced
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
1 / 3 cup white wine
1 cup vegetable stock or water
2 small red rose potatoes or similar waxy potatoes
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
freshly ground pepper to taste
Trim the roots from the leeks, keeping the bottom intact. Trim green tops so that the remaining leek is about 4 inches long. Split the leek in half lengthwise. Run leeks under cold water to clean and dislodge any dirt. Drain, place in a bowl and toss with 1 / 4 teaspoon salt.
Heat a large saute pan over medium heat, then add the olive oil. Place the leeks in the pan cut-side down, in batches if necessary. Cook over medium heat until caramelized, about 12 to 15 minutes. Turn leeks and cook for a few seconds on the other side. Remove the leeks from the pan and place, cut side up, in a shallow baking dish.
In the same pan, lightly saute the sliced shallot over medium-high heat for about 1 minute. Add thyme and white wine and cook about 1 to 2 minutes, until the wine reduces slightly. Add the stock and bring the mixture to a quick boil. Remove from heat.
Pour the liquid over the leeks in the baking dish until the leeks are almost but not quite covered, adding more stock if necessary. Place in a 400-degree oven and cook until the root ends of the leeks can be pierced with very little resistance by a knife, about 25 to 30 minutes.
While the leeks are braising, cut the potatoes into 1 / 2 -inch slices. Place them in a medium saucepan and fill with cold water, covering the potatoes by 1 inch. Season the water with 1 / 4 teaspoon salt. Cook over high heat until the water boils and test for doneness by gently piercing with a knife. If necessary, reduce the heat to medium and cook for 2 or 3 minutes longer until done. Drain and set aside.
When the leeks are done, heat the saute pan over medium heat. Add the butter, and when it is melted, add potato slices. Saute until lightly browned, about 1 to 2 minutes, turning as needed to cook both sides. Add the leeks and braising liquid to the pan and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste before serving.
From chef-owner Corina Weibel at Canele in Los Angeles. Recipe analysis provided by the Los Angeles Times.
Per serving: 279 calories, 4 grams protein, 35 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams fiber, 13 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 361 milligrams sodium
A FEW TIPS
Avoid leeks with yellowed or withered tops, writes Cathy Thomas in Melissa's Great Book of Produce. Look for leeks with the largest white and light-green areas, which are the edible portions.
STORING AND PREPARATION
Do not trim or wash leeks before storing, Thomas writes. Wrap them loosely in plastic and refrigerate for up to two weeks in the crisper drawer.
Before using, wash leeks thoroughly. Thomas recommends cutting off the root end and dark-green stalks, then cutting the white and light-green portion in half lengthwise. Hold the halves under cold running water with the cut side up, pulling layers apart with one hand to wash away dirt.
A bowlful of steamed mussels becomes extraordinary when married with leeks. Cut in thin strips and sauteed in butter, the leeks give structure to the winey broth as well as a hint of color -- the leeks on the small black mussels are like thick brush strokes of lime green on obsidian.
Blanched and minced into a thick pate shot through with fresh ginger, vinegar and chives, leeks showcase their cooler qualities, becoming smoother and more refined. Or seared and then braised in the oven in broth laced with thyme and shallots, they demonstrate profound earthiness.