Although the produce section in our local supermarket looks the same year round, most people are beginning to recognize the concept of seasonality when it comes to vegetables. Summer tomatoes, zucchinis, and corn are simply not worth the high price produce commands this time of year and our money is wiser spent on tastier cold-weather crops. Traditional winter vegetables such as cabbages, greens, and root vegetables are fresher and sweeter, and haven’t traveled as far to reach the grocer’s shelves, as they were more than likely grown in our own hemisphere. So using in-season vegetables is inevitably going to yield the best results in the kitchen. And a gorgeous winter vegetable that is often overlooked and underused is the leek.
Leeks, members of the cancer-fighting Allium family, occupy the same family tree as onions and garlic. Similar in appearance to large scallions, leeks have a small bulb and a long, white, cylindrical stalk that grows into a bunch of tightly layered green leaves. The edible parts of the leek are the white stalk and an inch or two of the pale green leaves. The dark green leaves can be saved for broth or, if there’s no broth in your near future, they make a great addition to the compost pile.
What does all of this mean for the winter produce hunter? When shopping for leeks, you want to keep an eye out for stalks that have the highest ratio of white to green. Pick the right leek and you’ll see why this vegetable earns praise for its delicate onion flavor.
You can enjoy leeks on their own, use them as an aromatic base for soups and sauces, or toss them into pastas, salads, gratins, or stews. But finding main dishes that highlight leeks can be a challenge. A simple and familiar recipe that allows this under-appreciated vegetable to shine is leek and potato soup (or potage parmentier in French). Also known as vichyssoise when served chilled, leek and potato soup has graced the tables of both farmers and kings for centuries. Even the Roman emperor Nero was believed to enjoy this “elixir” to improve his singing voice. This soup has all the characteristics of simple, comfort food. Warm, filling, and delicious, leek and potato soup is sure to become one of your kitchen classics — if it’s not already, that is.
Potato and Leek Soup
• 3 medium floury potatoes, such as russet, peeled and roughly chopped
• 4 medium leeks, white and pale green parts only, cleaned and cut across into ¼ inch lengths
• 4 ½ cups water, or stock
• 2 tbsp. butter
• Kosher salt
• ½ cup of heavy cream
• Any variety of garnish: chopped herbs (chives are particularly nice), buttery croutons, grated cheese, or fresh cracked pepper (optional)
Aside from cleaning the leeks the procedure for leek and potato soup is rather fancy free. The key to making a good soup relies entirely on the quality of your vegetables and the proportions you use.
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the leeks and sweat for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, until the aroma of the leeks becomes apparent. Be careful not to get any color on the leeks. Add the potatoes and the water and bring to a simmer. Add a good pinch of salt. Cook gently until the potatoes are just soft enough to crush against the side of the pot, about 20 minutes. In a blender, working in small batches, puree the soup (or use your trusty immersion blender to puree the soup right in the pot). Return the soup to the pot, add the cream, and heat through. Season to taste. Ladle the soup into hot bowls and garnish.
And don’t forget that it’s important to wash your vegetables very well when making any soup — a reminder that’s incredibly pertinent when cooking with leeks. Typically grown in sand, leeks are very dirty and need to be carefully cleaned. The easiest way to accomplish this is to cut off the greens about an inch or two above the white part and trim off the roots. Halve each leek lengthwise, exposing all of its internal layers but leaving it intact. Swish your leeks back and forth in a big bowl of cold water to release any dirt, then let them soak for a few minutes to allow the dirt to settle to the bottom of the bowl. Carefully lift the leeks from the water and rinse them under the faucet, fanning the layers open to allow the water to wash away any remaining debris.