There was an episode during the recent bout of MasterChef wherein one of the contestants ran a leek under the tap, shook off the excess water and reclined it on his chopping-board. Horrified, I watched him proceed to chop it up and cook with it – and what horrified me most of all was the fact that not one of those judges corrected him!
Leeks, long cylinders of bundled leaf sheaths, are notorious for trapping soil within their layers. The only way to properly clean them is to slice them into thin rings and soak them in several changes of water until not a speck of soil remains. Allium ampeloprasum is their Latin name and they belong to the Alliaceae family along with onion and garlic. The edible part is the white part, both base and pale green stalk before it transmutes into a dark and woody toughness, whose flavour is minimal. Although I have used this part of the leek – blanched to softness then used as a wrapping for, I vaguely recall, a vegetable terrine – and very beautiful its rich deep greenness was too.
The flavour of leek is much more delicate than that of onions, sometimes described as midway between cucumber and mild onion. ‘The poor man’s asparagus’ is a rather unkind term for it – but where would the world be without, say, Vichyssoise, that elegant chilled potato and leek soup or its supremely comforting warm winter version? One of my favourite cooking smells is leeks slowly softening in masses of butter as a soup base or a tart filling. Then there is the fabulous pasta sauce in which raw leeks are whizzed to a paste in a Food Processor together with celery, rosemary and sage then softened over a low heat in olive oil before being enriched with dried herbs – tarragon, marjoram – and finished off with garlic, parsley, cream and a sweetening touch of tomato. I have a recipe too for Drunken Leeks in which those sexy little pencil leeks are simmered with some chopped garlic in butter for several minutes before red wine is sloshed in ; the leeks continue to simmer, lid on, until tender, then are seasoned and removed to the serving dish while you boil the liquid down to a sticky syrup to pour over the top with a chopped parsley finale.
They are rarely eaten raw, and do not freeze happily. Depending on how fresh they are when you buy them, they may be stored anywhere from five days up to two weeks. High in Vitamin C, they are also a good source of dietary fibre, folate, iron, manganese and Vitamin B6.
There is a surprising relative of leeks, and that is elephant garlic – which keeps seducing me lately at farmers’ markets. Elephant garlic is not a true garlic at all; technically it is a leek. Its large size deceives people into the belief that its flavour will be intensely garlicky whereas on the contrary, as with leeks, it is mild and delicate. The bulbs can weigh up to 500 grams and a single clove is often the size of an entire bulb of ordinary garlic. Due to its much less intense flavour it has been described as garlic for people who don’t like garlic. (Do such people exist?) Instead of infusing a dish with that inimitable perfume, elephant garlic will merely imbue it thinly and toss it through salads – but it does tend to strike me as style over substance, a big flashy allium that any self-respecting vampire would only sneer at.