Monday, February 9, 2009

The Lovable Leek

Have I mentioned that I love leeks? I believe I have. This versatile allium is a mainstay in cuisines high and low all over the world. The leek is a symbol of Wales , and a constant presence in French kitchen gardens--potagers. The French sometimes refer to leeks as "poor man's asparagus" (l'asperge du pauvre); in the U.S., though, they ain't the poor man's anything. That's one likely reason we don't use them so much.

Things are getting better, though. I've noticed in recent years that lots of vegetables that once seemed exotic--leeks, celery root, bulb fennel--are becoming more and more common, and more and more affordable at the same time.

Leeks are cheap if you grow your own, which is pretty easy to do. Forget about the hilling and trenching that some books recommend, and that make growing leeks sound as arduous as building battlements. I start leek seeds in late winter, sowing them thickly in flats. If I'm ambitious I'll transplant them into potting soil before they finally go in the garden; if I'm not, then I don't, and my leeks will be a bit later, but they'll still be plentiful. Sometimes it seems to take forever for the tiny whisps of leek seedlings to get established and start to grow, but once they do, it's katie-bar-the-door. By late August I'm pulling leeks that are nearly two inches across, and are taller than I am when you stretch out the drooping greens.

In mid-summer I'll often mulch them quite heavily with shredded leaves or half-finished compost. This helps them stand up, blanches a bit more of the bottom, and basically eliminates the need for watering.

Leeks tend to be cheap at farmers' markets, too. They start appearing early in the summer, and continue right through until late fall. I leave my garden leeks in the ground until it's nearly frozen (sometimes even later, if I'm caught snoozing). Then I dig them up and bring them in, just knocking off most of the dirt, trimming the roots and the long greens (the greens can be cleaned up and saved for making stock).

If I have room in our extra "root cellar" fridge, I'll put some leeks in there. This year, though, I've kept them in a cool basement closet. They've kept pretty well there. They gradually dry out, but you just peel the dry layers off and the inner part is fine.

I put leeks into stocks, soups, braised dishes, stir-fries, you name it. One of our favorite dishes is buckwheat crepes filled with fondue de poireaux, "melted leeks," if you will. The basic idea comes from Brittany. An excellent accompaniment--though perhaps not very Breton--is a couple spoonfuls of these oven-roasted tomatoes .

Crepes aux Poireaux
serves four

for the crepes:

1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup buckwheat flour
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
pinch salt
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
4 eggs

Combine all the flours and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk in the milk and water, then whisk in the eggs one at a time. Cover and set aside for at least one hour (the batter can be made a day ahead; any leftover batter will be good for at least a couple more days). The batter should be quite thin--a good deal thinner than pancake batter, which is to say, it should pour easily off a soup. If it seems too thick when you're ready to make the crepes, add a little more water.

To make the crepes, heat an 8-inch crepe pan (or non-stick or well-seasoned iron skillet) over medium-high heat. Add a little butter, then wipe it out with a paper towel. Add 1/4 cup of batter, and turn the pan so the bottom is coated. Cook for about 30 seconds, flip the crepe, and cook for another 30 seconds. Pile up the crepes as they're done and set aside. You should get a dozen crepes.

for the filling:
6 medium leeks, about two pounds
1/2 tsp salt
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
3/4 cup water
1 1/2 cups creme fraiche or heavy cream
freshly grated nutmeg

1 1/2 cups grated gruyere cheese

Clean the leeks well, slitting them up the middle and separating the leaves under the tap to remove all dirt. Use both the white and the tender green parts. Slice the leeks crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces--you'll get five to six cups. Melt the butter in a large skillet, add the leeks, salt, and water. Cover and cook gently until the leeks are very soft, about 40 minutes (but possibly longer depending on the leeks).

When the leeks are soft and most of the water is gone, add the creme fraiche and a modest grating of nutmeg. Turn off the heat.

Now assemble and bake: Preheat your oven to 300 F. Put a nice dollop of the leek fondue in each crepe, and top that with a small handful of grated cheese. Roll them up, enchilada-style, and place them in a baking dish. Bake for 15 minutes, until the cheese is melted.

Then just serve them up. If there's leftover filling, smear it on top of the rolled-up crepes. For added richness, you could glaze the crepes with a little butter or creme fraiche. A French-style sparkling apple cider goes well with this. A salad or slaw completes this simple but satisfying dinner.

The "locavore" tally:

Whole Grain Milling and Natural Way Mills flours (Welcome, MN, and Middle River, MN)
Schultz Organic Eggs (Owatonna, MN)
Cedar Summit Dairy Milk (New Prague, MN)
Roth Kase Grand Cru Gruyere (Monroe, WI)
Hope Creamery butter (Hope, MN)
Home-cultured creme fraiche from Cedar Summit cream
"Our Garden" leeks (Princeton Avenue, Saint Paul, MN)

Non-local ingredients: nutmeg, salt

I'd give this dish an 'A' for local-seasonal integrity.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

No comments: