Sunday, November 5, 2006

Technique of the Week: How to Work with Leeks

Leeks are some of the most elegant onions -- tall, slender, and subtly sweet. But elegance does not come with cleanliness. I don't know what these leeks do while they are in the ground, but they manage to pack a good layer of sand nice and tight between their leaves.

How do you avoid getting all that grit into your dish if you can't get it out from between the inner leaves? You work backwards -- first you chop and then you wash. Here is a step by step guide to working with leeks.

Cut off the dark green leaves, leaving only the white and pale green parts.

Cut off the root end.

If the leeks look really dirty, peel one layer off the outside, and rinse the leek under cold running water to remove any visible dirt. Typically, this is only necessary for the leeks you buy directly from the farm since the supermarket leeks are partially cleaned.

Cut the leek in half lengthwise.

Cut of the root on a diagonal to help the layers separate once leeks are sliced.

I find that the leek layers can shift during slicing, making your knife slip. Here is one way to prevent this.

Take out the core of the leek.

Flatten the outer leaves by pressing on top with your fingers.

Using the claw grip (curved fingers and tucked in thumb). Slice the outer leaves, then slice the core separately.

If you want your leeks diced, repeat the slicing step going perpendicular to your original direction.

Now the washing part -- put the leeks in a large bowl of cold water and rub vigorously with your hands to separate the pieces and loosen the sand.

Wait 2-3 minutes for the sand to settle on the bottom of the bowl. Then scoop the leeks out with a slotted spoon without stirring the water. The goal is to NOT disturb the sand that settled on the bottom of the bowl.

Pour out the sandy water, rinse the bowl, and repeat this procedure until the water you discard is sand free. Typically, it takes 2 rounds.

Your leeks are now ready to be used.

Cooking leeks:
I cook leeks the same way for all my recipes. For 2 leeks, melt 1 Tbsp of butter and 1 Tbsp olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the chopped and cleaned leeks, 2 Tbsp dry white wine, and season with salt. Cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks are tender, about 10 minutes. Uncover, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks are just starting to brown, about 5 minutes. Since leeks vary in size, it’s hard to give exact measurements for oil and butter. If your leeks start to stick, add a little more oil or butter (butter tastes better, but oil is fine if you are watching your cholesterol).

We've been getting tons of leeks lately in our farm share. Here are some things that I've made with them:

Leek and Goat Cheese toasts -- these are fun to serve as an appetizer, a snack, or to accompany any fall soup. Lightly butter baguette slices on both sides (any good rustic bread works as well). Spread cooked leeks on baguette slices and top with goat cheese (I used mild and creamy Montrachet). Toast in the oven at 450F until the bread browns and cheese melts, 5-7 minutes.

If you are a dunker, you can pile the leeks into a broiler-proof ramekin, top with a mix of goat and mascarpone cheese and broil until bubbly and lightly browned. Serve with toasts.

Leek and Pumpkin Quiche -- kind of like a savory pumpkin pie. I spread diced cooked leeks in a pre-baked tart shell, and poured in a savory pumpkin custard. For the custard, I started with the quiche mix from Papaya Pâté blog, and stirred in a cup of baked and mashed pumpkin (canned pumpkin will work too). Then finished baking according to Papaya Pâté's instructions.

Potato Leek soup -- it's a classic and perfect for fall. You can use my potato fennel soup recipe, substituting leeks for fennel and following the above instructions for cooking the leeks.


Anonymous said...

The toasts with leeks and goat cheese sound incredible--just had to get up from the computer and go get a snack that contained none of these ingredients. But I just got some goat cheese at Trader Joe's, apparently supplied [private label] by the superb California producer of goat cheeses, Laura Chenel. I think I will have to try these toasts.

Helen said...

Hi Terry,

We just got back from vacation in CA and they do make amazing goat cheeses. Can't wait to hear how you like Laura Chenel.


Dianka said...

Leeks are just about my favorite veggie. Great technique on cleaning, I'll have to try that. Your leek recipes look delicious!

Anonymous said...

I know this is about leeks, but my wife suggested perhaps using shallots instead of leeks on the goat cheese toasts. Also sounds good, with perhaps a bit more of an oniony kick.

Helen said...

Hi Terry,

Shallots are my other favorite fancy onions. I agree that they'd be perfect on the goat cheese toasts.

It might work really well with blue cheese too :)


Chez Megane said...

This was really informative, thanks! Your recipes sound great, too. Goat cheese toasts are a favorite of mine, and I've never had a savory pumpkin tart, but it sounds fantastic! Thanks for the ideas.

Anonymous said...

I just found a recipe with leeks that looked good and although I have always been intimidated by leeks, wanted it to give it a try! Thanks for your detailed instructions...I am intimidated no more!

Helen said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks for this wonderful note. That's my goal in like to un-intimidate people in the kitchen :)


Anonymous said...

I needed these basic, detailed instructions. I've never used leeks, and to be honest didn't know which end to use! :l I feel 100% better about how to prepare them now.

Anonymous said...

Just a thank you!

This method worked very well for me, and we are enjoying a nice bowl of leek and red potato soup with croûtons and mozzarella cheese garnish right now.