tips & tricks

PLUGGING LEEKS

Make friends with the most versatile allium.

WRITTEN BY JORDAN VENEMA
PHOTOS BY RACHEL VALLEY

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Ask Sacramento native and chef Kevin O’Connor and he’ll tell you: Leeks are far more than the most pun-worthy vegetable.

“I love them,” he says. “I think it’s the most underrated allium.”

That is the onion family, which includes the many varieties of onions as well as such foods as garlic, shallots, and chives.

Chef at large for Cobram Estate, an Australian olive oil company with a processing plant in Woodland, O’Connor has been working in local kitchens since he was 14. He doesn’t just think leeks are underrated; he insists they’re almost a universal substitute for onions.

“What’s great about leeks is that they’re always fresh and versatile,” O’Connor says. “If I were to hack into an onion right now, it could have been sitting in a warehouse for up to six months.”

Unlike onions, he explains, leeks always are fresh. They may have a shorter shelf life, but that guarantees when they’re in a grocery store, they’re never too far from the farm. This, O’Connor adds, is why you store them in a refrigerator and not in the bowl on your countertop, where people usually place the other alliums.

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Chef Kevin O’Connor prepares his caramelized leeks dish

Leek on fleek

Leeks don’t have the astringency of an onion, and O’Connor would sooner use a raw leek than raw onion.

“Like in a super-thin julienne salad with oil, vinegar, and salt,” he says.

But they’re also as versatile and even as simple as onions.

“Cook them slow and low, even braised, until they’re nice and soft,” says O’Connor. “I’ll even blanch leeks really quickly and then marinate them overnight.”

And while leeks can be prepared simply, sweat down with just olive oil, butter, or salt — extra-virgin olive oil, O’Connor stresses — “they also really lend themselves to being grilled. It’s a recent hot item in the international food scene.”

“You’ll see a lot of leek ash,” he continues, “where you burn the shit out of the top portion of the leek, then put them in a blender to make ash, seasoned with salt.”

He also suggests replacing onions with leeks in a barbecue kebab.

“They’re a little trickier, and I think people are afraid of leeks because they’re not shaped like onions,” O’Connor says. “So they’re maybe more difficult, but they’re more delicious.”

O’Connor suggests cutting a one-inch-long portion from the leek and folding it in on itself through the skewer.

“It’s more visually appealing and takes a little more thought, but it’s definitely more rewarding,” he says.

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How to fix a leek

Leeks may require a bit more imagination, and that may mostly be because some people can’t recognize a leek, which looks like an overgrown chive, let alone know what to do with it.

“Generally, when I’m cooking with leeks, I’ll cut off the first half inch of the root, discard that, and take the next six to eight inches, depending on the leek,” O’Connor explains.

Leeks are layered like onions, so you’ll get rings if you cut one into disks, which O’Connor has done to make onion rings out of them.

“But usually, if I’m incorporating a leek into a mirepoix, I’ll cut the leek down the center twice, basically quartering the leek, and dice it like that,” he says.

So is there any situation where he wouldn’t use a leek instead of onion?

“I think they’re great on anything,” O’Connor says, genuinely pausing before answering. “Maybe a pico de gallo, where you need that sharp red onion flavor.”

As for finding leeks, O’Connor says just about any grocery store will carry leeks, but locally, Full Belly Farm, Capay Organic, and Riverdog Farm grow and sell them.

“Those are the heavy hitters, but other smaller farms will have them, too,” he says.

Riverdog Farm even fills its CSA box with leeks, which can be arranged for pickup on Sunday mornings at the farmers’ market under Highway 50 across from Southside Park.

So find them fresh, but find them quickly, because the season for leeks comes to an end in late spring. Versatile, delicious, and good for puns, this is one underrated vegetable that’s easy to root for.

Freelance writer Jordan Venema is a fan of wild stories, impetuous traveling, loud music, and food … but mostly of his son, Cassian, the greatest storyteller this side of the Prime Meridian.

Recipe

Caramelized Leeks, Soft Egg, and Walnut Gremolata
(courtesy of Kevin O’Connor, chef at large, Cobram Estate in Woodland. Serves 2)

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3 leeks
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt, to taste
2 eggs
⅓ cup walnuts, chopped and toasted
Zest of ¼ lemon
½ garlic clove
¼ teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Remove roots and tops of leeks. Cut along the center of the white to pale-green midsection, then rinse under cold water. Place leeks cut-side up on parchment-lined baking sheet. Liberally drizzle leeks with extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Bake 35 to 45 minutes or until outer layers are caramelized and beginning to crisp.

To make walnut gremolata, place finely chopped walnuts in bowl and zest with ¼ lemon, then grate ½ clove of raw garlic over bowl. Add freshly chopped rosemary, pinch of salt, and drizzle of olive oil. Mix well and set aside.

Bring pot of water to boil, then gently lower eggs into water and reduce heat to gentle boil. After 6 minutes, remove eggs from water and immediately plunge into icy water. Allow eggs to cool in ice water before peeling.

Create a nest of roasted leeks on plate, and cut soft eggs in half. Place egg halves on top of leeks, then garnish with walnut gremolata, a pinch of salt, and, if you happen to have them, rosemary flowers for garnish.

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