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Veggie Highlight: Leeks

leek1Many people consider leeks in the 'semi-exotic' category of vegetables. This was true for me until I began cooking with them more regularly the past few years.  But I've now come to view them as essentially just gigantic scallions. They're easy to throw into dishes anywhere  you might use an onion.  As far as flavor, they tend to be a little less 'oniony', sweeter than onions themselves.

In history, the leek has held both an exalted and abused status.  The Welsh actually wore leeks in their caps to help distinguish themselves from their opponents in the battle against the Saxons in 640 AD. They did win the battle (presumably partly because they weren't attacking their own men?) and the leek became the national emblem of Wales.   In contrast, the French thought leeks were 'the asparagus of the poor'.  This remained the opinion until a French chef at the New York's Ritz Carlton in the 1920's came up with vichyssoise (cold potato and leek soup). Leek reputation restored!

leek2

The biggest issue with leeks is making sure they are very clean before cooking as dirt tends to hide in between the layers. The simplest way to clean them is the following:

  1. Cut the leek stalk where the light green section turns to dark green. Discard the dark green sections.
  2. Cut stalks lengthwise so they lie flat and then chop into desired size.
  3. Place pieces in large bowl of water and swish to get water in between layers.
  4. Strain and rinse.

One of my favorite recipes is from Jamie Oliver....very simple, just yummy leek and cheese goodness and you can vary the recipe easily depending on what you have available.  I end up making some variation of this recipe every couple of weeks. Here is the original recipe taken from his 'Jamie's Food Revolution' book:

leeks6Baked Creamy Leeks
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

  1. Chop and clean 3 medium or 4-5 small leeks into 1/2 inch pieces.
  2. In saute pan, add 2 cloves garlic finely sliced (I use heaping tsp of minced garlic), olive oil and 2 pats butter.
  3. When garlic takes on color, add the leeks and leaves from 6 sprigs of fresh thyme. Cook for about 10 minutes, until leeks softened.
  4. While that is cooking, grate 1 cup of cheddar cheese.
  5. Remove pan of leeks from the heat, season with salt and pepper and add just under a cup of heavy cream and half the grated cheese.
  6. Mix and transfer into earthenware/baking dish so that leeks are about 1 inch thick.  Sprinkle the other half of cheese on the top and bake for 20 minutes.

Variations:  I've substituted milk for cream when not on hand, various spices, and made with more flavorful cheeses such as Gruyere or Havarti. All good!

Two other fun stories about leeks.  One again comes from Wales as the leek is associated with Saint David, the patron saint of Wales. The story goes that any maiden who slept with a leek under her pillow on his feast day (March 1st) would see her future husband in her dreams. This apparently is why leeks are a common dish in Wales around Lent.  Imagine all those stinky pillows!  

The other interesting leek tale is that Agatha Christie named one of her most famous characters, Poirot the French detective, after the leek. Poireau is the French word for leek. She apparently has said that she actually disliked the character she created
- maybe she just didn't like leeks as a kid?? It's a mystery!

leek1My other favorite recipe uses some unusual ingredients mixed together and has the appearance of being more difficult than it really is.  It's rich and flavorful, not skimping on the calories so it is a wonderful dish for special occasions as it looks elegant once removed from the springform pan.

leek5Phyllo Vegetable Pie
4 large or 6 medium leeks
1 3/8 stick of butter
2 carrots, cut in small cubes
1 cup mushrooms, sliced (I like Cremini)
2 cups brussel sprouts, quartered
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 ounces (1/2 cup) cream cheese
4 ounces Roquefort or Stilton cheese
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups chopped apples (Gala or similar)
2 cups cashews
12 ounces frozen phyllo pastry, thawed
salt and pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut leeks into 1/2 inch pieces, clean well, drain, and dry. Heat 3 tbsp butter in large pan and cook leeks and carrots over medium heat for 5 minutes.  Add mushrooms, brussel sprouts, and garlic and cook another 5 minutes.  Empty vegetables into a large bowl and set aside to cool.
  2. Whisk the cream cheese, blue cheese, cream and eggs in a bowl and season with salt and pepper.  Pour over the vegetables and mix well.
  3. Peel, core, and cut the apples into 1/2 inch cubes.  Add the apples and cashews to the vegetable mix.
  4. Melt the remaining butter.  Brush the inside of a 9 inch springform pan with butter.  Add the pastry sheets one by one, brushing them with butter as you go and laying them so they line the bottom and come up and lay over the sides of the pan by ~2 inches with overlapping layers. Leave several pastry sheets for the decorative top.
  5. Spoon the vegetable mixture into the pastry and fold in the pastry dough over the top towards the center.  Brush remaining phyllo sheets with butter and cut into 1 inch strips.  Cover the surface of the pie with strips sort of bunching them up in a decorative manner.
  6. Bake for 35-40 minutes until golden brown and crisp all over.  Let stand for 5 minutes to cool, then carefully remove springform pan to serve.

So these are just 2 of my favorite leek recipes.  There are so many easy ways to incorporate more leeks into your dishes. Consider some other ideas:

  • add thin slivers of leek to your salad or your next omelet
  • combine leeks with regular or sweet potatoes for a great soup
  • saute with other greens like kale or swiss chard
  • roast chunks of them with carrots or other vegetables on a sheet pan
  • for a great party appetizer, saute slivers of leeks in butter until soft and then dump a warm gooey chunk of brie on top of them on the plate and let everyone scoop with bread or crackers. Yum!

Heart of fruits and vegetables

Need one more good reason?? Like garlic and onions, leeks belong to the Allium family and contain the good chemical compounds of that family - vitamin C, iron, and fiber but also polyphenols and an important compound called kaempferol, a flavonoid (also found in red onions).
Polyphenols and kaempferol have been shown to protect blood vessel linings from damage. Leeks also contain the B vitamin folate in one of its most bioactive forms (5-methyltetrahydrofolate, or 5MTHF).  Folate is important because it helps keep homocysteine levels in proper balance and really high levels of homocysteine are a risk factor for heart disease.   So leeks are an excellent 'heart healthy' vegetable!

I rest my case for the lovely leek!

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