Leeks are thought of (when they are thought of at all) as a base for winter soups and stews. But they deserve far more attention than a bit player in a winter’s tale. Although the leek is a member of the onion family, the flavor is more subtle and refined than the standard onion.
An Ancient Delicacy
Leeks have been around, and enjoyed, for a very long time. They were part of the diet of the workers who built the Egyptian pyramids, and the ancient Romans were particularly fond of them. In fact, the first century Roman Cookery of Apicius includes seventeen recipes for leeks. Among them are mouthwatering recipes such as leeks stewed with shell beans in white wine, leek sauce with pepper for braised meats, fish fillets with leeks and coriander, and leeks with truffles.
Leeks Around the World
The Roman tradition continues all over Europe and the Middle East, where nearly every shopper’s market basket contains a pound or more of leeks – slender ones in spring and summer, and nice big fat ones in fall and winter. Even the biggest, scariest leeks become tender and mild after a brief cooking, so don’t let big leeks – or the dirt often found in them – put you off.
They are excellent in sauces, vegetable dishes, soups, casseroles, and stir-fries. And they are naturally low in calories and an excellent source of Vitamin C, iron, and fiber.
Simple, Hearty and Delicious
Although leeks nearly disappeared from the tables of upper classes throughout northern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, they kept going strong in hearty peasant fare. One of the lesser-known, but more delicious of the comforting peasant dishes is Leek Champ. (“Champ” is one of the best-loved ways of cooking potatoes in Ireland. Simply boil them, mash them with some boiled milk, and stir in a green vegetable such as scallions, chives, nettles, peas, or leeks. Then serve the creamy, green-flecked mixture with a big knob of yellow butter melting in the center. It’s a sure way to get any picky eater to eat vegetables!)
1 pound potatoes
1 pound leeks
2 Tb butter
1 cup milk (more or less, depending on dryness of potatoes)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
- Scrub the potatoes and boil in salted water until cooked through.
- While the potatoes are cooking, wash and slice the leeks into thin rounds. If the leeks are gritty, slice them longitudinally and rinse well before slicing.
- Melt the butter in a heavy pot. Toss in the leeks and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover and cook on low heat until soft and tender.
- As soon as the potatoes are cooked, drain, peel, and mash.
Bring the milk to the boiling point in a small pan. Beat the buttered leeks and their juices into the potatoes along with enough boiled milk to make a soft texture. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve immediately with a lump of butter melting in the center.