Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Stalwart Leek

The roses are close to blooming.  Though roses themselves are gorgeous, the leaves are attractive in their own right.

One of the seven Queen Elizabeth hedge roses taking a shower

Handsome, versatile leeks function both as an food crop and structural plants.  Sow seeds by May and they will provide visual/culinary interest starting in early autumn all the way through to next spring.  They can be popped into the bays between shrubs in a sunny location as long as the area is pesticide/herbicide free. They will stay in the ground looking smart and perky until you are ready for them so no real need for successive planting.

Leeks are biennials.  The second year, that is, their second spring, they go to seed. Edible plants often go bitter when they go to seed, so I make sure I harvest what I want as food before that happens, leaving a couple of plants for seed collection.  Or if you have the space just let nature eventually do it for you and then transplant the volunteers into better locations.

Note the lovely self-sown youngster.

Select the sturdiest and most robust leeks to be your seed bearers.  The seed head itself looks like a gnome's pointy hat.  Leeks are such a class act as they look as dapper as ever while sporting their steely-blue, violet, or white globular flower heads.

Leek seeds being tiny and black makes it difficult to regulate their spacing.  In addition, leeks are best transplanted so their lower fleshy parts are fully buried ensuring that they will be white and sweetly succulent.

Transplanting allows for the better placed leek on the right which is buried right up to bottom leaves

Leeks certainly can be mounded if grown in place.  However, both problems are solved more easily if they are sown first in flats.  Or a few seeds can be sown in small pots, obviating the need to transplant later to larger pots.  Leeks do not need heat to germinate so the flats/pots can go out on the terrace/patio/balcony. In either case choose the sturdiest seedlings to remain, clipping the others off at soil level with scissors.   Another approach is to sow directly into a nursery bed, with later transplanting to where they will mature and be harvested. When transplant size, they are as thick as a pencil and should be placed about five inches apart.

As leeks and potatoes are such a perfect pairing one does not have to stop with leek and potato soup.  This agreeable coupling works well when making twice-baked potatoes.  Eight halves make for a very nice packed lunch for two if one has access to a microwave.  Some people do without re-heating, not that I would know about that!  Or two halves can accompany a larger meal providing a total of four servings.

(Makes eight halves)

  • Four medium-large baking or all-purpose potatoes 
  • Leeks, thoroughly washed and sliced, two cups 
  • Parmesan cheese, grated, 1/2 cup
  • Cream, 1/3 cup 
  • Garlic, one large clove crushed
  • Red pepper flakes
  • Butter, salt, freshly ground black pepper as needed

Having a block of aged Parmesan is nice to have handy

Scrub potatoes well.  Arrange on a rack in a 450 degrees F oven and bake till tender when tested with a knife's point--when done, the knife will feel like it is sliding of its own accord into the centre--about 45 to 60 minutes depending on the potatoes' size.

While the potatoes are baking, cook the prepared leeks and crushed garlic with a tablespoon each of butter and water--sauté for a few minutes first in butter, then add the water--in a covered skillet till tender for about 15 minutes.  Cut the baked potatoes into halves and scoop out the insides into a mixing bowl, leaving enough potato to make 1/8 inch thick walls.  This is a rather important detail for the finished dish--if the walls are too thin, the shells will not do their job holding the filling neatly in place, if too thick, you miss out on the delectable filling that could have been there.

Score first around the edge and then hollow out, neither too thickly or thinly

Rice or mash the potatoes in a large mixing bowl.  Reserving a couple of tablespoons of leeks for garnishing, put the rest in a small bowl and purée with an immersion blender with just enough cream to get a smooth texture. Then add the pured leeks, Parmesan, and the rest of the cream along with the desired amount of salt and freshly ground pepper to the potatoes.  Beat well with a large wooden spoon or whisk till a luscious consistency.  Stuff the potato  halves.

This nifty masher is really a ricer

Note the leeks smoothly blended with just enough cream and the leeks  reserved for garnishing

Any time food preparation requires mixing/beating, I use it as an excuse to make percussion music

The filling can be piped into the shells or a scored pattern  following the contours of the potatoes can be made using a fork.  Bits of butter placed on top will increase browning.  Bake 400 degrees F for about a half an hour or until the top is crusty and golden brown. Garnish with red pepper flakes and the reserved leeks which may need to be reheated to make them glisten attractively.

Bon appétit!

Michelle's Astuce

If a more puffy, pillow-like look is preferred, mound the shells as fully as necessary, using the extra ones as the basis for making potato skins.  There will be about four halves constituting heftier portions, so keep that in mind when menu planning.

Cleaning leeks and leek/potato soup recipe