The suave European cousin of the working-class, lowbrow onion, the leek is sweeter in flavor, more genteel in mien. It bears the marks of good breeding — it lends itself to more esoteric preparations and its non-sulfuric acids make no one cry. Its silhouette is impeccably handsome, too, a decorous fan of dark green fronds emerging from a slender, long, white shaft, a scallion on steroids.
But the leek has a secret — a dirty one. While onions are impeccably clean under their tough, papery outer skin, almost every leek I’ve ever encountered has a gritty bottom, one that needs a thorough washing before it’s chopped and cooked. It’s easy enough — cut them lengthwise and ruffle the layers, like the pages of a book, under cold running water to wash it all away.
The leek’s French name, poireau, means “simpleton,” but in France, leeks are considered a noble vegetable — le poireau is, in fact, the name of the ribbon given by the Ordre national du mérite agricole, the national honor for distinction in food, wine, or agriculture. In France, leeks are eaten almost year-round — braised and baked with breadcrumbs, steamed and marinated in vinaigrette, and cooked in savory tarts and soups and even souffles. Les poireaux are, arguably, the national vegetable.
Not so in the United States, diet crazes notwithstanding — when the notorious diet book Frenchwomen Don’t Get Fat extolled the leek as a diuretic and a low-calorie (and delicious) food, the recipe for author Mireille Giuliano’s “Magical Leek Soup” sparked a run on leeks in the United States that almost caused a nationwide shortage. But this was likely the first time many Americans had ever eaten a leek; it’s not part of our national cuisine. Early American cookbooks, if they included the leek at all in recipes, treated it as an insignificant flavorant or optional addition. (A digital search of The First American Cookbook produces zero results for “leek”, but seven for “onion” and ten each for “corn” and “potatoes.”)
The leek has nonetheless long been associated with luxury. In the Bible, as the Israelites wandered in the desert in search of the Promised Land, they lamented, "Remember how in Egypt we had fish for the asking, cucumbers, and watermelons, leeks and onions and garlic. Now our appetite is gone; wherever we look there is nothing except this manna." Since “this manna” was a weird sort of bread made from ground-up coriander seeds and baked in pots, it’s easy to imagine why exiled former slaves dreamed of leeks, as well as fish and garlic, even though these items were vestiges of their lives in forced labor.
In Wales, the leek is a national symbol. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, King Harry’s Captain Fluellen wears a leek in his hat, traditional in Wales on St. Davy’s feast day. When his Welsh pride is mocked, he beats his tormenter with the leek, then forces him to eat it, announcing in his Welsh accent, “Ay, leeks is good.”
The leek was also a harbinger of matrimony; young unmarried Welsh women slept with a leek under their pillows on St. Davy’s day, March 1st, in hopes of seeing their future husband in their dreams. The next day, they cooked their leeks in a variety of festive recipes, including cock-a-leekie soup, a Scotch potage that contains exactly what the name suggests—chicken and leeks.
(Cock-a-leekie soup was popular in other countries, too, and in olden days, prunes were included in the broth. A passage in an historical account illustrating the colorful and controversial French politician and gourmet Talleyrand’s alleged dullness in person contains the following quote, evidently his sole remark of the evening to a fawning dinner guest who thought he was about to have the conversation of a lifetime: “Apropos of your cock-a-leekie soup, Monsieur Jeffreys, do you take it with prunes or without prunes?”)
Anyway, the later, more prosaic version of the recipe calls only for the two principal ingredients, carrots, rice, salt, pepper, and, if you’ve got it, bacon.
Two or three leeks are always on hand in my refrigerator. They’re at their best in soups — cut in half from top to tail, rinsed well, sliced thin, and sautéed with the aromatics. Contrary to usual practice, I always include an inch or two of the tough dark green parts; if they’re chopped small enough, they turn tender and palatable when cooked, and they contain most of the nutrients. Throwing a chopped leek into melted butter produces a smell like no other: savory and even nutty, enticingly suggestive of something really good coming in the near future. Leeks, so tough and fibrous when they’re raw, relax when they’re heated into velvety, toothsome softness.
The simplest soup in the world is also one of the best (and best-loved): diced leeks and potatoes covered with fresh cold water in a pot, simmered till soft, puréed if you like, salted and peppered to taste. The leek-and-potato combo is one of those immortal culinary pairs that should be left alone to meld into a subtly rich, symbiotic duality — no cream,herbs, or carrots required.
For the past four years, I’ve lived in coastal Maine and the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where winters are long and cold, and where hardy root vegetables of all kinds are therefore popular. I’m beginning to suspect that leeks, sea fish, and chourico (a spicy, smoky chorizo-like sausage that was brought to the frozen north by the generous Portuguese), are the holy trinity of New England cuisine. My favorite meal on a raw winter night is haddock cut into bite-sized pieces, marinated in lemon juice and smoked paprika, then poached in chicken broth and white wine with garlic, leeks, and chourico, and served over chewy red rice with a mound of steamed, garlicky baby spinach.
Leeks are also crucial to my version of a New England bouillabaisse, a robust North Atlantic seafood stew that foregoes the fennel, orange, and saffron of the more exotic Mediterranean version in favor of carrots, Old Bay, and smoked paprika. I start with a base of leeks, chourico, celery, garlic, and carrots, sautéed well in olive oil and flavored with my chosen spices, and then finish it with potatoes, clam juice, vegetable or chicken broth, tomatoes, firm white sea fish, shelled shrimp, and parsley. With garlicky aioli on toast, it’s fantastic on a rainy, windy summer evening with all the windows open and a strong Dark and Stormy cocktail in hand.
Leek-carrot frittatas are beautiful things for brunch; in a big skillet slicked with sizzling butter and oil, briefly crisp two chopped leeks with crushed garlic and hot red pepper flakes before adding four grated carrots to the pan and letting it all soften for five minutes or so. Pour six beaten eggs over the vegetables, and top the whole with grated gruyere. Then, once the protein begins to set, run the skillet under the broiler for the browning finale … in this dish, the leek, which plays so well with others, has a bright splash of stardom — its oniony sultriness shares top billing with the strong, earthy cheese and is supported, unobtrusively, by the sweet carrots and creamy eggs.
Given the slightest encouragement, the elegant leek is always ready to shine.