Leeks

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RECIPES AND PHOTOS BY PAOLA THOMAS

The farmers markets are piled high with these slender, white beauties. Take them to international heights with these very traditional but very different European dishes.

Leeks thrive in our cool, rich soil, and at this time of year, the farmers markets are piled high with these slender, white beauties. But sometimes it’s difficult to know exactly what do with them — after all, there’s only so much leek and potato soup that a person can stomach.

For this piece, I turned to my European forebears for inspiration. Europeans have been cooking with leeks for centuries, and these three very traditional but very different European dishes will put leeks back where they belong, at the very heart of your meal.

PASTA WITH LEEKS AND HAM

leeks and noodlesServes: 4–5 | active time 15 minutes (start to finish: 45 minutes)

Italians have known for a long time that braising sliced leeks in a little stock or wine turns them delightfully soft, creamy, and sweet. This traditional pasta sauce — this is my Italian mother’s version — makes the most of this sweetness, offsetting it with just enough savory ham and cheese to be richly satisfying. The result is quick and easy enough for a weekday supper, and pretty and unusual enough for a dinner party.

INGREDIENTS:

2 pounds leeks (approximately 4 medium leeks)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup chicken broth, dry white wine, or dry white vermouth (or a combination)
6 ounces cooked ham, sliced into matchsticks
Salt and pepper to taste
12 ounces dried pasta (any short, stubby pasta, such as rigatoni, penne, or bowtie)
Water to boil pasta
1 tablespoon salt
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

STEPS:

Wash the leeks thoroughly to remove the dirt and grit that can get between the leek leaves, and remove the outer layers as necessary. Pat dry. Remove the roots and thinly slice the white and pale green parts.

Gently heat the oil and butter together until melted in a high-sided saute pan or heavy saucepan, then add the leeks and stir until coated. Add your liquid, cover the pan, and simmer the leeks gently until very soft and sweet and most of the liquid has been absorbed, about 30 minutes. About 5 minutes from the end of the cooking time, add the chopped ham and stir into the leeks until evenly distributed.

In the meantime, bring the pasta water and salt to a rolling boil in a large pan and cook the pasta al dente, according to the package. Drain well and keep warm.

When the leeks are cooked, stir in the cream and cook for another 2–3 minutes until the cream is warmed through and absorbed. Stir in half of the Parmesan cheese.

Stir the cooked pasta into the creamy leek sauce until the sauce is well distributed and serve at once, topped with the remaining Parmesan cheese.

FLAMICHE

flamicheServes: 8 | Active time: 30 minutes (start to finish: 2 hours 40 minutes, including chilling and baking time)

This classic leek tart comes from the Picardy region of Northern France. I’ve changed it up a little by omitting the traditional top crust, adding a little cheese to the bottom crust, and sprinkling some pancetta and chives into the leek filling for greater depth of flavor.

If the weather is kind, a flamiche makes a spectacular and unusual contribution to an outdoor potluck or picnic.

For the crust

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (plus extra for dusting)
1/2 cup finely grated Gruyere or Comte cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
5–6 tablespoons iced water
Butter for greasing the pie dish
1 egg white mixed with 1 tablespoon water for egg wash (or milk can be substituted)

STEPS:

As with all pie crusts, keep everything very cold. I keep a bag of flour in the freezer, use butter straight from the fridge, and work as quickly as possible.

Place the flour, cheese, and salt in a food processor and process for a few seconds to combine. Add the butter, and process until the mixture resembles coarse sand, about 10 seconds. Add 4 tablespoons of iced water and then process for about 10 seconds until thoroughly mixed in. Then add more iced water, a tablespoon at a time, pulsing for a few seconds between each tablespoon, until the pastry starts to combine around the blade.

At this point, pull out the dough and knead it gently on a lightly floured surface until fully combined and smooth. Flatten the dough into a thick disk and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before using.

Preheat the oven to 390°F. Thoroughly grease an 11-inch fluted quiche/tart pan. Roll out the dough to make a circle slightly bigger than the pan and then line the pan with the dough, pressing it firmly into the sides and running a rolling pin across the top edges to trim the sides. Prick the base all over with a fork. Line the crust with a circle of parchment paper and fill the crust with baking beans or pie weights. Bake blind for 12 minutes.

Remove from the oven and brush the base with egg wash. Return to the oven for another 5 minutes. Remove and set aside to cool.

For the filling

2 pounds leeks (approximately 4 medium leeks)
1/4 cup unsalted butter
2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 ounces cubed pancetta (or substitute bacon)
1 cup creme fraiche or heavy cream
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
1/3 cup grated Gruyere or Comte cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons chives, finely chopped

STEPS:

Wash the leeks thoroughly to remove the dirt and grit that can get between the leek leaves, removing outer leaves as necessary. Pat dry. Remove the roots and slice the white and pale green parts into 1/2-inch rounds.

Melt the butter in a large high-sided saute pan or saucepan and add the salt and water. Stir in the leeks until coated. Cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook gently, stirring occasionally, until the leeks are very tender, about 15–20 minutes, being careful not to let them brown. Then remove the lid, turn up the heat a little, and allow any excess liquid to bubble off, about 2–3 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 360°F.

In a skillet, sizzle the pancetta cubes until golden and set aside. Spoon the cooked leeks into the cooled crust and sprinkle with the cooked pancetta.

In a bowl, combine the cream, egg, egg yolks, cheese, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and chives with a fork until evenly blended. Pour the mixture on top of the leeks and pancetta in the crust, taking care to push it into all the gaps between the leeks.

Bake the flamiche in the center of the oven for 35–40 minutes until golden and set.

COCK-A-LEEKIE SOUP

Serves: 4–6 | active time 25 minutes (start to finish: 3 hours, including making stock)

The weather can be so variable here in late spring and early summer, and on a cold, damp June-uary day, there is nothing more comforting than a warming bowl of chicken soup. Instead of noodles, this traditional Scottish broth includes rice and ribbons of leeks and a surprising garnish of julienned prunes. If prunes are a bridge too far, try dried apricots, which make for a less traditional, but no less successful, counterpoint to this intensely savory soup.

For the stock

2 leeks
2 carrots
8 cups water
6–8 black peppercorns
4 chicken legs
1 teaspoon salt

For the bouquet garnish

small bunch of thyme
1 bay leaf
small bunch of parsley stalks

Finishing the soup

2 leeks
2 carrots
1/3 cup uncooked long-grain rice
10 prunes (dried plums) or dried apricots, thinly sliced
salt and pepper to season
parsley for garnish

To make the stock, remove the roots and tops of the leeks and wash them thoroughly to remove dirt and grit, removing outer layers as necessary. Cut each leek in half, and then cut each half again lengthwise. Wash the carrots, remove their tops, and cut them in half lengthwise. Put the water in a large saucepan and add the leeks, carrots, peppercorns, and chicken legs. Tie the thyme, bay leaf and parsley stalks together in a bundle with cooking string to make a bouquet garnish and add that to the other ingredients in the saucepan.

Bring to the boil and remove any scum, and then simmer with the lid on for 2 hours.

In the meantime, thoroughly wash the remaining leeks, remove the roots, and slice the white and pale green parts thinly. Wash and peel the remaining carrots, and then chop into small dice.

Strain the stock into another pan. Discard the vegetables and bouquet garnish. Take out the chicken, remove the skin and bones, and tear the meat into small pieces, using your hands or a fork. Set the chicken aside.

Add the leeks, carrots, rice, and prunes or apricots to the stock and cook again for another 30 minutes until the rice is tender, adding the chicken back for the last 5 minutes of cooking so it can warm through. Adjust seasoning to taste and serve sprinkled with parsley.

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