During the summer, allium family members, namely onions and shallots, dominate with pungency and volume, their gravid roundness an analogy for big season harvests. But in the winter, a slender, gentler cousin emerges. Leeks still carry that oniony umami-enchancer quality that make the more bulbous summer onions an essential component in a standard mirepoix. But it goes sweeter and has a tenderness when cooked that borders on buttery. It's a gentleness that tames beasts and changes futures (we're not being that hyperbolic, Anthony Bourdain points to a fateful bowl of potato leek soup in Kitchen Confidential as his culinary crossroads moment.)
The only issue? Etiolation. A properly etiolated, or soil-blanched leek will have six or more inches of tender white to pale green stem. Important since the blanched portion is all you eat (the leathery blue-green fronds up top aren't worth the trouble). It makes it a bit high maintenance, crop-wise, but it is one of our favorite winter crops (and we appreciate the extra work it takes to bring them to market). Leeks are harvestable for months and continue growing in the ground once mature. And right now the bigger, fatter stems are starting to show up on local market tables and winter menus.
Cut into a leek and you see ring after ring of tender and pale layers, going from creamy white to a yellowy pale green in the center. You also see dirt. Sometimes lots of it. Leeks have a very shallow root system. They also love water. So in order to maximize water retention around those unambitious roots, farmers tend to plant their leeks in heavy, sticky soil. Grows a great leek, but it means that when the plants are hilled to blanch the stalks, some of that heavy dirt snakes down into the layers, especially if they're watered from above. This makes the need to rinse your leeks paramount lest you get some unwelcome grit in your grandma's vichyssoise.
We've found the least painful way to clean out the dirt is to cut the stem lengthwise leaving the root base still attached. This allows you to separate the layers to rinse while keeping everything neatly connected. If it's a super dirty leek, go ahead and chop it up and then dump it all into a bowl of water. The soil will sink while the leek bits float.
A fully intact leek plant is a thing of beauty. Its upper leaves fan out symmetrically from the main stalk in thick blue-green ribbons that squeak a little when rubbed together. But that beauty makes them cumbersome in the market bag so vendors generally sell them sans tops. You're choosing for the stem anyway, so it's no huge loss. Pick leeks with a nice stretch of firm, blanched stem, six to eight inches preferably. Avoid floppy leeks and check for bruising around cuts.
Chef Monica May at the Nickel Diner uses leeks as a base for one of their signature egg dishes, the Sunny Side Cup. The leeks create a gentle foundation, cradling a pudding-like ouef. Make the batch of buttery leeks in bulk and alternate their use (we toss them with quinoa and parsley).
Nickel Diner's Sunny Side Cup
From: Nickel Diner chef-owner Monica May. You will have extra leeks, which May uses in other Nickel Diner egg scramble dishes: ham, leeks and Fontina cheese, and Salmon, leeks, roasted tomatoes, sour cream and chives.
Serves: 1, plus additional leeks
Buttery Leeks (recipe below)
Salt and fresh ground pepper
Parmesan cheese, grated
Melted butter for drizzling
1 teaspoon minced chives
For Buttery Leeks:
1 bunch of leeks (usually three to a bunch)
2 oz. unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1/4 cup water
1. Trim and clean leeks by cutting off end, splitting them in half, and rinsing thoroughly in cold water.
2. Using predominately the white and pale green part, slice leeks into 1/4″ ribbons.
3. Heat a saute pan and add butter. Whens it foams, add the leeks and begin to saute gently. You want to soften leeks, not brown them.
4. Add nutmeg, salt and pepper and continue to cook until just starting to color. Add water, cover and continue to cook about 10-15 min. Leeks should be slightly golden and melted.
For Baked Egg:
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place 1/4 cup of cooked leeks in the bottom of an oven-proof ramekin. Crack the egg on top and season with salt and fresh cracked black pepper, drizzle with melted butter, and dust with the Parmesan cheese.
2. Put dish on a baking sheet and place in oven, or alternately, place under broiler. In the oven it will take about 10-15 minutes for the egg to set. Under the broiler, it will take about five minutes, depending how runny you like your eggs.
3. The ramekins will be extremely hot, so take care when pulling them out of oven. Top with chives and serve with toast.