As someone who writes about food and is surrounded by people who are very knowledgeable about it, it's easy to forget that what may be obvious to a kitchen geek is not actual common knowledge. From its inception the point behind this blog was to make cooking approachable to anyone: from a busy mom, to a working couple all too familiar with late-night take-out, to a reclusive bachelor who eats nothing but beans which he heats on the stove top in a can (hopefully with the label removed). Making cooking approachable does not work if someone does not know what to do with a particular ingredient. For example, a recipe may say: leeks, greens removed, chopped. What does that mean? Do I remove all of the green parts, leaving nothing but a three inch white stump? And why am I eating sand?
So today we are getting down to basics. This will be our first stand-alone "what to do with" or "how to prepare" series and today we are starting with leeks.
Leeks, garlic, onion and chives are all part of the same plant family (for nerds like me, they even share the same genus: allium). A leek looks like a giant green onion. If you've ever picked up a leek you may wonder why it's always so dirty as it has sand and dirt in-between each leaf. This is not because someone forgot to clean them before delivering them to your supermarket or because they grow in a place where someone constantly shovels dirt on them. This problem arises from the very structure of the leek. Unlike the green onions that it resembles, the way the leek grows is different. With the former, the green stalks are like little tubes attached to the white bottom which will grow into a tight bulb. The leek, on the other hand, is not a bulb plant; it is composed of sheaths which grow by pushing upwards from the ground. As a result, the dirt gets in not only between the green leaves but also in-between the layers of the white base.
Most recipes call for using only the white and light green part of the leek, as the dark green part is very fibrous. As a result, it is better to select leeks with longer white stems, rather than stubby short ones. The dark green parts are edible, they simply have to be cooked long enough for them to soften sufficiently. The dark green parts are also extremely flavorful (they are similar to the stalks of green garlic). While the green parts may not be usable if the recipe calls for a quick sauté, they can be used where the method of preparation is long enough for the fibrous leaves to begin to break down, such as a soup. And as a result, the dish will have a much richer flavor.
To prepare the leeks, first chop off the root end. Then cut off the dark green section right where the leaves begin to separate, and either discard it if not using, or set it aside.
Slice the white base lengthwise in half, or even quarters if the stem is very fat.
As you can see, there is dirt hiding right in-between the leaves, thus it is impossible to wash it away by simply rinsing a whole leek under a stream of water.
After you've sliced the leek in half, there are two ways to clean it, depending on individual preferences. You can simply rinse out each base half under a stream of cold water, helping to separate the layers with your fingers to wash away the dirt. This is my preferred method since I don't like chopping dirty vegetables (I'm not alone, Alton Brown describes it as nails on a chalk board in this video).
The second way to clean a leek is first to slice the white base in half, as with the previous method. Then, without rinsing, slice each part into half-circles, about 1/4 to 1/2 inch wide (or whatever the size your recipe calls for).
Fill a large bowl with cold water and place the chopped leeks in it. Swirl them around with your hand to help separate the dirt from the leeks (the dirt will sink to the bottom). Then carefully transfer the leeks into a colander placed over another bowl to dry.
In either case, if you are also using the green leaves which you've previously chopped off, discard the outermost leaves, trim off about an inch off the top, then rinse and chop them.
Now that your leeks are all clean and chopped, you are ready to cook them. Leeks are great in soups, sautéed, or they can be used raw in salads in a similar way to an onion. You can try this recipe for rutabaga and zucchini soup which uses leeks, a version of the vichyssoisse with beets, or you can come back for a leek and cabbage soup recipe which will be posted tomorrow.