In the United States, if someone thinks of leeks, it is usually in the context of a supporting role such as being chopped into a soup or stock, or maybe as part of potato leek soup, with the emphasis on potato and leeks as support. However, in Europe and parts of the Middle East, leeks are viewed as a vegetable unto themselves, and are treasured. In France, they are known as “the poor man’s asparagus.” While I can see the comparison – both can have a silky texture and subtle earthy flavor – I think leeks are “noble” enough to stand on their own merits. Leeks have been used in cuisine for centuries, with records of them being used by Egyptians dating back as far back as 2000 BCE.
Leeks are the subtlest of the alliums. Where onions can have a pronounced flavor, leeks add that allium “funk” quietly, without a lot of sweetness. The mellow quality of leeks helps to round out other flavors in a dish, brightening flavors without overwhelming the dish. When preparing cold weather meals where the flavors are deeper and less vibrant than warm weather cuisine, leeks shine. For braises and roasts, leeks provide balance in the dish. Leeks also make for great appetizers as crostini or little pizzas.
Leeks are also great in starring roles. Look at almost any classic bistro menu and you are bound to find one or two dishes starring leeks such as Potato Leek soup, Leeks Vinaigrette, or leeks à la Grecque. They can also be used in a gratin, blanched and then baked in béchamel or cream, or used to top a tart. They feature in one-pot meals such as Cock-a-Leekie, too. I have enjoyed them where they were poached in stock and then layered into a terrine mold as a starter. My current favorite is to roast them en papillote with carrots and herbs, where they become incredibly savory and tender. Many recipes call for boiling leeks, but I prefer to steam them as it keeps them from getting waterlogged. Try frying them to a frizzle for topping dishes, or stew a mess of them and purée it for a flavor booster or a smear on sandwiches.
Besides versatility, leeks are good for you. Of the alliums, leeks provide the most nutrients for a standard 3½ ounce/100 gram serving with 20% of RDA for vitamin C, 10% of B6, 14% folate10% iron, 5% calcium, and 6% magnesium, among many other vitamins and minerals.
How to Select
When selecting leeks, look for firm shiny whites with some of the rootlets attached, and the greens should not be really limp. The outer layer should not be corrugated looking and it should feel a little heavy for its size. Skinny leeks are good for making a salad of or grilling and serving with Romesco sauce, thicker ones work for everything else.
When prepping them, check to see if there is a lot of soil in the inner layers and wash well with plenty of cold water. Here's a quick video about how to clean leeks. You can use the chewy tops for making a broth or add them to a stock. You’ll find leeks at T&L Coke Farm, Webb’s Organics, Pinnacle, and Blue Heron.