The mildest - and one of the most overlooked - of alliums.
Welcome to ingredient, where once a month I take a deep dive into some of my favourite seasonal and store cupboard ingredients. This month I’m focusing on leeks: an underrated kitchen workhorse that provides a welcome splash of green while we wait for all of those blood oranges and candy pink stalks of forced rhubarb to add a little colour to our seasonal diet.
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Unless you come from the French culinary tradition, I think leeks are seriously underrated as both an ingredient and as a vegetable. Firmly part of the allium family, they’re sweeter and more mellow than an onion, bolder than a spring onion, salad onion or scallion (or whatever you call them where you’re from) and melt into a rich, mellow softness when slowly cooked in a way you just can’t expect from anything else with even a whiff of onion about it. Leeks can be the star of the show, or they can be the solid backbone around which an entire meal is built, whether you know they’re there or not.
I’ve heard it said that a French home cook - especially in the North of the country where the cooking is more Northern European than Mediterranean - considers them as an absolute essential, always to be on hand, and I’m the same. I always have some sort of leek about, either fresh in the vegetable drawer, ready to be pulled from the earth in my kitchen garden, or else sliced and frozen in the freezer ready to be transformed into soup.1
Aside from the pretty much constant batches of soup, I always turn to leeks at the start of the year while I’m waiting for the blood oranges and forced rhubarb seasons to add their splash of colour as they’re one of the few ingredients that still hold a bit of vibrancy in these chilly, sparse January months that I’ve not already become heartily sick of by now. I’m looking at you kale, brussels sprouts.
In the past I’ve cooked them down and stirred them through spaghetti, roasted them and doused them in romesco, and cooked them up with mushrooms to serve on toast with a sunnyside egg, but before we move onto talking about this months recipes, as I did not really have much of a plan for what I was going to say about leeks aside from that they’re underrated and that you need to cook with them more, I thought we’d do that thing again where we go through my (extensive) cookbook collection and see what some of my usual culinary companions have to say about them. If you’ll not listen to me about why leeks deserve a permanent spot in your life, perhaps you’ll listen to them?
Forgetting other peoples recipes for a moment, fellow Substack newsletter writer and cookbook author David Lebovitz describes why leeks are a kitchen essential in the introductory notes to My Paris Kitchen:
Leeks are the foundation of many classic French soups and stews. They are often sweated in butter and provide a fuller, more rounded flavor than onions. The most famous French leek dish is poireaux vinaigrette, which is a platter of steamed (or poached) leeks drenched in mustardy sauce. It is one of the most emblematic dishes of French cuisine.
So there you go, they’re a versatile workhorse which provides both an aromatic backbone or the star of the show, wherever you look. The explanation may be brief and functional, but they’re important enough to be given top billing at the front of the book, and I’m telling you after my experience trying to include comprehensive ingredient notes in my own books, space here is at a premium.
While it can be a bit dis-jointed to cook from, if you’re into the science of what ingredients can do if I fancy a lesson I usually grab my copy of Sybil Kapoor’s fascinating book Sight, Smell, Touch, Taste, Sound: A New Way To Cook, which is essentially a study of how our senses interact with recipes, ingredients and cooking processes, via recipes. On pg 70 she has a recipe for a Charred Leek Salad with Thyme Oil which helps relate how the nature of a leek can change depending on what you pair with it. She explains:
The dominant flavours in this recipe are the lingering smoky, green allium notes of the charred leeks. I wanted to create a fresh-tasting early autumn dish, so I’ve chosen lighter herbal, citrus and dairy notes… to lift the dish. If you wanted to create a wintery dish, you could draw on the smoky woody notes of the leeks instead, by adding toasted nuts or smoky bacon in place of the feta.
Moving onto some more generalised leek usage, for or us Brits, at least, Anna Jones is one of the undisputed queens of vegetarian cooking. I can recommend her books A Modern Way To Eat, The Modern Cooks Year, and One Pot, Pan, Planet2 both in general and to explore the humble leek. In A Modern Way To Eat she caramelises her leeks to gently tangle around a Caramelised Leek and New Potato Salad on pg 104, and leeks make up the bulk of her Deep Crusted Leek and Greens Pie on pg 230 which she describes as:
The kind of hearty dinner I spent years scouting vegetarian cookbooks for. Something stand-out that will feed my hollow-legged boyfriend as happily as my health-conscious sister…
Whilst there are lots of recipes in these three vegetarian cookbooks that showcase the leek as the star of the show, they actually do more to show that as well as being delicious in their own right, paired with other herbs, vegetables, spices and seasonings dependent on the time of year they can really make a dish a meal - important during these darker January days.
And now, for my recipes. As I’ve already mentioned, a leek’s main purpose in my kitchen is in providing me with bowl after bowl of leek and potato soup. Whilst a lot of the time I bang on about how you don’t need to mess around with a classic, I’m a professional recipe developer: it is literally my job to do so. So, I’ve shared a little twist on my usual recipe for leek and potato in my second book One Pan Pescatarian, with the added oomph of slow roasted garlic to add a little more complexity to the bowl.
Next, we’ve got my Leek, Mushroom & Chestnut Pie. Those of you who have made my Leftover Roast Chicken Pie from Student Eats might find this one a little familiar, because they both are made with puff pastry, leeks, mushrooms, smoked lardons, white wine, stock and cream, but I've taken my families ‘how to make a pie’ template here and started tweaking to really make the leeks - one of my favourite parts of the chicken version - the star, alternating slow cooked with richly caramalised, reducing the cream to really let the vegetables sing, and adding a handful of chestnut sweetness and texture to really make this a seasonal beast, rather than something to be enjoyed all year round. We’ve been loving this hearty dinner in development, and I hope it will help you sort out at least a couple of your January suppers, too.
My Creamed Leeks with Tarragon, on the other hand, came about as part of my gradual move towards breaking up with supermarket food shops, shopping locally more than ever before, and only getting a food delivery every three weeks or so. Roasting a chicken with lots of lemon and herbs, I discovered I was pretty much out of green veg to go on the side - even frozen peas - and realising my only source of green was my row of leeks outside the kitchen door. Whilst J adores simple roasted leeks I think they can be a bit dry, and boiled ones take on too much water. I did once however make a lovely dish to go with a Sunday roast from Ella Risbridger’s brilliant book Midnight Chicken & other Recipes Worth Living For: Marky Market’s Creamed Leeks (pg 186) which I remembered as being delicious, but time consuming, so I set about making my own. The result, coming together as you rest the bird and make the gravy, enriched with creme fraiche, elevated with tarragon and brightened with a hit of white wine and lemon zest I think is going to become one of your favourite side dishes this winter.
My leek and potato soup game changed the day I realised that French frozen food supermarket Picard sold products here in the UK on Ocado. Not only are their cook from frozen mini baguettes and their already peeled pearl onions for adding straight to stews brilliant kitchen shortcuts for getting dinner on the table, but their frozen leeks - whilst way to watery for anything else - mean that with a sack of local potatoes in the garage I’m never without the ingredients for our favourite soup in the house. Though, don’t be tempted to try their frozen chopped roasted peppers. I’ve done it so you don’t have to!
I am required to note here that I was gifted my copy by the publisher.