(Image by Fiona Hallinan)
Leeks make their first appearance of the season in September but they are happy growing in the winter soil. It’s just as well, early spring is when they really get a chance to shine. Marking a mid point between the deep, earthy root vegetables of the cold, dark months and the more lively and pronounced flavours of the spring/summer time they bring a sweet, unctuous, nutty warmth which too often takes a back seat in soups and stews. Let them take centre stage and you may find they have quite a lot to say for themselves.
Towards the end of April they develop a wooden core and their flavour dulls. We only have a little time left to celebrate the last of the fine leeks.
The green stalks of the leek have quite a course flavour. I wouldn’t be too hasty in giving them the chop though. There is a cabbagy taste to them that’s a good natural companion to the onionyness of the white stem. Parts will be too tough – I usually take a couple of inches off the top and the outside stalks right off.
A leek and potato soup
The vast leeks on offer in some supermarkets aren’t too generous when it comes to flavour. It may be a soup, but it’s a simple one, so its worth sourcing some thumb width leeks whose flavour will do it better justice. Like a classic Vissychoise, this recipe calls for water. If you’ve ample green stalk trimmings, simmer them in water for half an hour and use that liquor instead.
Peel and then cut up some waxy potatoes into small wedges. Cut the trimmed leeks in half lengthwise, rinse and then dice them. Add the potatoes and leeks to a hot pan with olive oil. Season well, and add a bunch of thyme tied to a bay leef and a sliver of lemon zest (with string or a long thyme stem). Before a minute’s, up add warm water to the pan – two to three times the volume of vegetables. Bring to the boil and then carefully scim any funny business that rises to the surface. Check carefully for seasoning, cover and very gently simmer until the potatoes are tender.
Let it cool a little before serving. Garnish in the bowl with a few drops of cream, some chopped curly parsly and a generous amount of freshly ground pepper.
Leeks, egg and cress
The best way I know of letting an Irish leek sing
Boil your trimmed leeks in lots of salty water until tender. Drain them, and when cool enough to handle, slice them in half lengthwise. Arrange them on your plates or serving dish flatside up and season with olive oil, salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice. Serve with some cress dressed in a similar manner and some not-quite-hard boiled eggs cut in half lengthwise and seasoned with salt and pepper. Work briskly so the leeks are still slightly warm when served.
A smoky, leeky vinaigrette
This vinaigrette works pretty well with a range of spring bounty. It’s been tried and tested with boiled purple sprouting broccoli, grilled sardines and baked beetroot (yummy with some chervil to garnish).
Try to get your hands on baby leeks, their sweet intensity is important. If you’re able to grill the leeks over a smoky fire then you really are in for a treat.
Trim your baby leeks and cut them in half, lengthwise. Wash, and pat dry. Add some olive or nut oil to a near smoking hot pan. Place each leek half in the pan flat side down. Add a generous pinch of salt. When they begin to burn (don’t be coy – burn means blacken!) turn them over. When they have all been turned, cook for half a minute more with the occasional toss of the pan. Slide them on to your chopping board and as soon as you can handle them (but they are still hot) chop them and add them to some lemon juice in a bowl. Stir and leave for ten minutes. Add your best olive oil, (if you find your olive oil to have more of a prickly than fruity flavour then I’d use half nut oil, so as not to overwhelm), salt and just a smidgen of wholegrain mustard to taste.