BY GEORGEANNE BRENNAN / PHOTOGRAPHY BY HANS BENNEWITZ
When I was living in France, I first discovered leeks when my neighbor took me to her garden to pull several handfuls. They were still young, she explained, and she would make them into a salad. She instructed me to skip every two or three, then pull one. That meant that the leeks left in the ground had plenty of room to thicken and mature, yet she could benefit immediately from the young ones.
"We planted that way on purpose. That is why the leeks are so close together. It is like your thinning, but we use what we thin." How clever, I thought—but then the French are like that, getting the most out of everything.
Late that afternoon, she brought me a platter with a row of perfectly steamed whole leeks dressed with mustard vinaigrette and a sprinkle of fresh parsley. My husband and daughter and I ate it for a first course, along with slices of crusty baguette for sopping up the sauce. A simple but memorable dish.
Leeks are one of the fundamental elements of French cooking. They are essential to a classic chicken stock, which is the beginning of so many dishes. The white part of the leek goes directly into the stock, and the green becomes part of the bouquet garni that also includes thyme, parsley, bay leaves and a rib of celery.
A quick glance at the index of Julia Child's classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking reveals various dishes that feature leeks, such as Leeks Browned with Cheese, Leeks a la Grecque, Leek Gratin with Ham, and Leek and Potato Soup and Vichyssoise. Leeks also play a supporting role in such dishes as Pot-au-Feu and Poule-au-Pot, where they not only lend their delicate flavor to the stews, but also are served as one of the vegetable accompaniments.
Like my neighbor in France, I plant my leeks close together and, as much as possible, I like to have them in the garden year-round. In the kitchen I find I can treat leeks, which are a mild member of the onion family, just as I would onions. I like to thinly slice leeks, then sauté them in olive oil for pizza toppings or to spread across hamburgers instead of onions. Fried up and crispy-crunchy leeks make a good topping to sprinkle on salads or soups. When leeks are lightly rubbed with olive oil, seasoned with a little salt and pepper and then grilled, they add something special to the typical grilled vegetable platter.
There are many different varieties of leeks, and you'll notice that sometimes the white part—which is the tender part—is sometimes quite short, perhaps less than one-quarter the length of the entire leek. Other times, the white is quite long. It all depends on the variety. However, in terms of taste and flavor, any variety will provide that subtle, almost sweet taste that underpins savory dishes from soups to stews and salads.
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