Tuesday, October 19, 2004

I’m always surprised at this time of year by how puzzled most cooks are over the leeks they see in produce sections and farmer’s markets. They seem to think that leeks are some sort of fancy French vegetable, too refined or complicated to cook with at home. Or, as I’ve heard so many times, cooks with an adventurous spirit bring them home, only to be disappointed by results that taste as pale and gray as they look, not to mention the occasional unpleasantly gritty sensation of sand between their teeth.

Why am I surprised? Because in Europe, leeks are a true peasant vegetable with which most people are well familiar. Yet, this humble pantry staple, like a character out of a fairy tale, is also able to rise to stardom in the most sophisticated kitchens. With a little bit of knowledge about the best ways to prepare and cook them, they can become favorites in your kitchen as well.

Relatives of the onion family, leeks have a mild yet distinctive flavor when cooked; and, unlike many onions, they are a little too tough and harsh to eat raw. They grow best in sandy soil, which explains the problem some people have with their grittiness. That is best solved by washing the leeks thoroughly, cutting them lengthwise in half so that cold running water can rinse away any trace of sand lurking between the vegetable’s loose concentric layers.

Too many leek dishes become unappetizingly gray because that’s what happens to the green, leafy upper part of the vegetable when it cooks too long. I solve that problem simply by trimming off the dark green half, no great loss since it is more fibrous and harsh than the more tender and sweet whites. Like onions, leeks develop their best flavor when you’ve cooked them long enough to caramelize slightly their natural sugars, something you can do by sauteing or deep-frying.

I use both cooking methods for leeks in the recipe that follows for my version of a classic French soup. Leek whites are sauteed along with potatoes and garlic for the base of the soup; then, still more are deep-fried in a little oil to make a golden garnish.

Since we all eat food first with our eyes, I like to make this soup even more colorful before I serve it by stirring in some spinach that I first blanched, boiling the leaves and then plunging them into ice water to fix their bright green hue. What better way to welcome autumn than with a warming soup the color of springtime?


Serves 8

2 very large leeks and 1 small leek, green parts and root ends trimmed off and discarded, white parts cut lengthwise in half and thoroughly rinsed

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 large russet potatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped

11 medium garlic cloves, peeled and blanched in boiling water for 2 minutes, then drained

5 to 6 cups chicken stock or good-quality canned chicken broth, heated

3/4 pound spinach, trimmed and thoroughly washed

1/4 cup creme fraiche

Vegetable oil for deep-frying

All-purpose flour

1/2 tablespoon lemon juice

3/4 teaspoon ground white pepper


Freshly grated nutmeg

Coarsely chop the white parts of the 2 large leeks.

In a 4-quart saucepan or stockpot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the chopped leeks and saute until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the potatoes and garlic and continue to saute, stirring occasionally, until the garlic begins to turn translucent, 2 to 3 minutes more.

Pour in 5 cups of the hot stock or broth, reduce the heat, and simmer until the potatoes are very tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a medium saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil and fill a mixing bowl with ice and water. Add the spinach leaves to the pan and, as soon as the water returns to a boil, drain the spinach in a colander and immediately put it in the ice water. Drain thoroughly. Gather the spinach into a ball and, with a sharp knife, chop it coarsely. In small handfuls over the sink, squeeze the spinach tightly to extract excess liquid. Put the squeezed spinach in a bowl and set aside.

At the same time, fill a deep, heavy frying pan with 1 inch of the vegetable oil and, over medium-high heat, bring the oil to 325 degrees on a deep-frying thermometer. Cut the remaining small leek white into thin julienne strips about 1 inch long. In a small bowl, toss the leek julienne with just enough flour to coat the strips lightly, shaking off excess. Carefully scatter the leek shreds into the hot oil and fry until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. With metal skimmer, remove the fried leeks and spread them on paper towels to drain. Set aside.

When the potatoes are tender, puree the soup in a blender or a food processor fitted with the stainless-steel blade, being careful to avoid splattering by working in small batches, leaving the blender lid or processor feed tube ajar, and draping a dishtowel on top. Strain each pureed batch through a medium-mesh strainer set over a large mixing bowl, pressing the soup through with a rubber spatula.

Return the soup to a clean saucepan or pot and, if too thick, stir in the remaining stock or broth. Put the creme fraiche in a small bowl and, with a small whisk, briskly stir in some of the pureed soup until thoroughly blended. Then, whisk the creme mixture back into the pot. With your hands, break up the reserved spinach and stir it into the soup. Warm the soup up over low heat, seasoning it to taste with the lemon juice, white pepper, salt, and a little nutmeg.

Ladle the soup into heated serving bowls and garnish each serving with some fried leek strips. Serve immediately.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY. 14207.)


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