By a grim stroke of irony, our leek crop has been doing splendidly this year. Leaks of every sort are to be seen on every news bulletin, and the sound of pumping out leaks must ring horribly in the ears of everyone living on the Levels. I can’t think of anything worse than not be able to get into my kitchen and cook in this sort of weather – it is therapeutic for the cook and brings benefits to the family, who like nothing better than a bowl of leek and something soup to keep out the damp. Those shots of flooded kitchens, the cookers out of action with water up to their grills, are heartbreaking.
Naturally, in view of the quantities of mud around, leeks grown in garden or allotment conditions have never been more laborious to clean. How do supermarkets end up with those immaculate white monsters? Certainly they don’t taste of much, and they are not all that fresh by the time they have been transported across the country and back again, as supermarkets tend to do, but they are so much easier to deal with. When a load of leeks comes to my back door, they have been trimmed of most of the leathery leaves, and the roots have been sliced off, but that’s it. Deep inside the green is mud – lots of it. I have to allow an extra half-an-hour to get rid of it, but it’s worth it. So good is the flavour of a freshly dug leek that it can make a risotto on it’s own. Slice finely, soak in water with at least two changes to get rid of Somerset grit, drain thoroughly, then cook slowly in butter until soft and melting. At that point add the rice, stir it round in the buttery leeks and then add hot vegetable or chicken stock made however you like, bit by bit, stirring from time to time, until the rice is cooked. At that point add more butter, unsalted is best, lots of black pepper, plenty of parmesan, and salt, plus a grating of lemon rind, which adds a nice bit of tartness. Of course you can add another element – a rasher or three of bacon, fried separately and folded in before serving, or some cooked, flaked smoked haddock.
You can make leeks glamorous by cooking them with a bit of tomato and olive oil and water, à la grècque as they are called in France. As I’ve never had leeks in Greece, I don’t know what they call them. If you are buying your leeks rather than having them land up in your kitchen in need of a good wash, then look out for the baby ones, packed in plastic and in need of lots of flavours to make them interesting. Either way, trim them and, if using the real thing, slice them across into 1 cm thick diagonal slices. Prepare a mixture of equal amounts of water and olive or rapeseed oil (about 150ml of each) in a wide pan – a frying pan is fine – and simmer until the two have amalgamated, adding a spoonful of tomato paste, a teaspoonful of lightly crushed coriander seed, a sprig of thyme, dried or fresh, a bay leaf or two. Cook the leeks in this gently until they are tender, add a little salt and leave to cool. You can serve this with black olives and a dusting of chopped parsley, lots of good bread to mop up the juices and some ham and salami, as a first course. Or steam thick chunks of leek until tender, pour a vinaigrette over them, made with tarragon vinegar perhaps, and leave to cool, before serving them with mayonnaise into which you’ve stirred some whipped cream and a very little bit of finely chopped shallot. Again, this is a great way of dressing up a very humble vegetable.
Perhaps the boldest way of treating them is to braise them in red wine – a combination which is brilliant with roast lamb. There is a downside, in that they don’t look their best – all that lovely pale green and white turns a curious purpley-gray – but the flavour is fantastic. Start the raw, sliced leeks off in a pan with a bit of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and a grinding of pepper. Let them singe a bit until golden – not black – then add a glass of red wine. Lower the heat, put a lid on the pan, and let them cook gently until soft but not mushy. For feeding crowds, whole leeks steamed until only just tender, wrapped in thin slices of boiled ham and then blanketed with a good cheesy sauce made with a generous spoonful of mustard (a grainy one gives texture ) and extra grated cheese mixed with dried breadcrumbs works really well. Bake this in the oven until the sauce is bubbling, the top crisp and golden, and serve with potatoes boiled in their skins and dried off until fluffy and able to absorb the juices from the leeks and ham.
Finally, of course, there’s leek soup – one of the best. My own favourite is made with leek and potato, just that, briefly blitzed, not reduced to a purée. To that I might add some crumbled Blue Vinny, or a good spoonful or two of the garlic flavoured Boursin, depending on what’s around. This is wonderful stuff for cheering up rescuers. And just a thought, one I think which must have occurred to many these past few months; would it be possible to grown rice on the Levels? There are so many resourceful food producers out there, perhaps one or two could tackle this natural tendency to turn land into paddy fields productively.
Simone Sekers © February 2014