Home & Garden: Give Leeks a Chance

Home & Garden: Give Leeks a Chance

During a long and often overcast New England winter — especially this one with its attendant miseries: pandemic, economic hardships and social unrest, not to mention wildfires, hurricanes and drought — cooking comforting and nutritious meals takes on heightened importance. But the deeper we go into the months of cold and snowy weather, the more we rely on produce that has spent long hours in transit from warmer climes. It’s better to stick to the hardier vegetable selections that are grown closer to home: winter squashes, potatoes and sweet potatoes, chards and kales, Brussels sprouts, cabbages and that king of alliums, the leek.

Throughout many years of shopping and cooking, I’ve shied away from this handsome vegetable, most often found tied in bundles of three or four, lying in state amidst other sturdy selections like chard and collards, or beets and carrots still wearing their greens. Because they are often expensive here, I reasoned that onions were a perfectly acceptable substitute and hesitated to toss a bundle of leeks into my shopping basket, not knowing what to do with them or how long they’d keep. Since we’ve started growing them ourselves in the last few years, I’ve been using leeks with abandon, tossing them into soups and stews, omelettes and even using a few finely sliced rings on top of salads.

When I first started to incorporate leeks into recipes, I wished they’d come with a user’s manual. I overcooked them into mush or left intact outside layers that became inedibly tough when cooked. I often found grit still lurked inside stalks I swore had been thoroughly rinsed. For those new to using leeks, here are a few hints to help you avoid these pitfalls.

First, when buying leeks, look for ones that have as much white and light green as possible and are not yellowed, but crisp and firm. They’ll last for a week or two after you bring them home, but be sure to wrap them in damp paper towels and place them in a plastic bag in your vegetable drawer to keep them from becoming slimy and mushy. When ready to use them I cut off the dark green tops and reserve them for stock. I trim the root end, then halve the stalk and really swish the cut pieces in water. If you plan to slice the stalk into rings, you can also just slice and put the resulting rings into water and wash and rinse them thoroughly. Then you’re good to go.

A word on leeks vs. onions. Though they are milder than their allium cousins the onion and garlic, leeks have a very distinctive flavor — sweeter, yet strong in their own way. Just one leek in a pot of stew will be noticed. If you love them, that’s a good thing. But if you prefer a more balanced flavor, go easy.

For leek lovers, there’s so much more to do than pair them with potatoes in soup, although potato-leek soup is a classic. Here’s a recipe for potato-leek soup that switches it up a bit, using sweet rather than white potatoes.

S W E E T   P O T A T O   A N D   L E E K   S T E W

2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cups leeks, white and light green parts, sliced into 12-inch rounds
2 Tbsp. fresh ginger, minced
3 garlic cloves, sliced thin
Sea salt and pepper
3 Tbsp. red curry paste
7 cups peeled and cubed sweet potatoes
4 cups chicken broth
14 oz. can coconut milk
Juice of one lime
14 cup cilantro, chopped
12 cup salt-roasted peanuts, roughly chopped

In a large pot or Dutch oven, sweat leeks, ginger and garlic with 12 teaspoon salt for about three minutes. Add curry paste and cook, stirring, an additional minute. Add sweet potatoes, chicken broth and salt and pepper to taste to the pot, cover and bring to a gentle boil. Cook for 20 minutes or so, until potatoes are tender and falling apart. Once potatoes are done, use the back of a spoon to mash up the potatoes to a chunky consistency. Stir in the coconut milk and lime juice and simmer a few minutes longer. Serve with cilantro and peanuts sprinkled over the top.

Another good use for leeks? Pizza topping. This recipe calls for mushrooms with the leeks, but feel free to use olives, either green or black, or blobs of chopped, sautéed winter greens — or all of the above.

L E E K   A N D   M U S H R O O M   P I Z Z A

1 ready-to-bake pizza crust
1 lb. cremini (or mixed) mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
2 large leeks, white and light green parts sliced and rinsed well
2 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
4 garlic cloves, minced
12 lb. fresh mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
12 cup Parmesan cheese, coarsely grated
12 cup fresh basil, sliced
Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat oven to 450 degrees. While oven warms, heat a large frying pan to medium high, add one tablespoon olive oil, mushrooms, salt and pepper. Saute mushrooms until liquid is removed, about 10 minutes. Then add leeks and stir occasionally until leeks are soft, about three minutes. Set mixture aside. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Lightly flour a flat surface and, using floured hands, gently flatten dough to a rectangle of about a half-inch in thickness. Place on baking sheet and spread with remaining tablespoon olive oil and minced garlic. Place three quarters of mozzarella slices and a fourth of a cup of Parmesan cheese on top. Spread with mushrooms and leeks, then top with remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway, until the crust is lightly browned and cooked through.

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