It seems impossible that we’re this far along in our blog-o-rama without paying homage to the mighty leek. I think it’s the most aristocratic of the aromatics, and while delicious when buttered, baked, or braised, today it shall be dealt with in a most British fashion.
Wait, why would you do that?? Well, although the above ways of eating leeks are good, to me they really stand out in soup. Anyone who’s had a delicious bowl of vichyssoise or simple leek and potato probably would agree. But why especially soup? A quick look at preparation methods for leeks (in soup or otherwise) alongside their siblings hints that they’re a little different. Like, um, other things… people seem to like them done very slow and very moist. Let’s investigate.
Leeks are a member of the esteemed allium family, relatives of the lily that are indispensable in the kitchen for the zip and zing they give to our food. As we learn from the ever-esteemed Harold McGee, all alliums pack their punch by way of the sulfurous compounds that are released when the flesh is exposed to oxygen… for instance when chopped, crushed, mashed, smashed, etc. The way that those compounds are then treated in the cooking method determines how they’ll end up tasting – mellow or harsh, fresh or fruity, etc etc.
Leeks differ from their more common relatives such as garlic and onions in several ways, but most importantly for our soup-group, they don’t make use of a densely-packed bulb for energy storage, but rather spread their delicious sulfur-bombs throughout a big, beautiful stalk of tightly-packed, thinly-layered leaves. In parts of the world where they’re more popular (France, England, etc), farmers heap up the soil around the bases to get the whitest, tastiest, most “onion-y” part as long as possible… sometimes, it’s just amazing.
Anyway, the cool part about all this is that since leeks are big and leafy (unlike onions, which are 90% water, or garlic, which is 90% fructose), they are very high in everyone’s favorite long-string carbohydrate – CELLULOSE! As such, they benefit greatly from low-heat, long-duration, high-moisture cooking that breaks down the cellulose without any burning that would cause crystallization, and therefore bitterness. The result of the broken down cellulose in water is a wonderful, velvety texture alongside a mellow, sweet, and deeply fragrant flavor, developed by way of the patient treatment of the aforementioned sulfur compounds.
In the soup I made, I paired up leeks with traditional potatoes, herbs, and spices, but also a rutabaga (or swede, here in the UK), an un-sung hero of the root-vegetable kingdom that could (and may) have a post all to itself.
The trick (in my book) to making your leeks really great is cleaning them properly, and then sweating them in a mix of butter and olive oil with a bit of flour – this yields the most concentrated flavor with the best texture, and will make your soup f-leeking amazing.
Leeky Rooty Soupy:
- leeks (as long on the white bit as you can find)
- celery (for brightness)
- potatoes and rutabaga (for earthy-savory-starchy body)
- assorted herbs (thyme, parsley, chive)
- butter/olive oil (tablespoon a piece)
- a little flour (1 tablespoon should do it)
- veg stock (just enough to cover the vegetables by about 1/4 inch)
- sweat the leeks and celery on moderate heat in the fat until soft but not mushy or brown
- stir in the flour until combined, and you have a glossy sheen on the vegetables
- add in the potatoes/other root veggies and sautée a couple of minutes
- add the stock and herbs with a dash of salt and pepper
- simmer for 20-30 mins until everything’s cooked, the volume is reduced slightly, and the flavors have blended
- purée if desired, correct seasoning, garnish with herbs, eat with amazing bread of your choice
While cooking, I listened to: Andrea Chénier, simulcast from Covent Garden. Not my fav, but Jonas Kaufmann manages to be so frickin’ sexy even when you can see him.
Bread eaten with: super-seedy Scandanavian rye