And then there are leeks: the wallflowers that people sometimes overlook but who will be your best friends, ready for anything once you get to know them.
Unlike your classmates, whom you never see again after high school, it’s not too late to get acquainted with leeks.
While in general most alliums are interchangeable in a pinch, leeks are among the mildest in terms of that distinctive sulfur flavor and have an almost herbaceous sweetness that sets them apart from others. Their more subtle flavors give them an enviable versatility – they can serve in a supporting role or step into the limelight to be the star of a dish.
Leeks are available year-round, but are often associated with spring when small, young specimens first become available – which should be snapped up when you see them. Look for firm leeks, usually sold in bundles of three, preferably with roots attached to extend their lifespan.
They can get quite long, but only the white and light green parts of the leaves are used in recipes. (The dark green parts are best for the broth.) This results in a lower yield compared to other alliums, which combined with a generally higher price means it’s a good idea to look for leeks with most of the white and light green to seek maximize the bang for your buck. Leeks should be stored whole, unwashed, and loosely wrapped in a damp towel or cling film in the refrigerator, where they will keep for about a week.
Before cooking, it’s important to wash leeks thoroughly, as dirt and grit often gets trapped between the layers of leaves as they grow. My preferred method is to cut off the dark green parts of the leaves, trim the roots (if any) while leaving the base intact so the leaves are still attached, cut in half vertically through the base and place under running water, separating the leaves with your fingers to allow water to get in between. Then simply shake them dry and pat dry with a paper or clean tea towel if needed before slicing or dicing as directed in the recipe.
Another option comes from former assistant food editor Bonnie S. Benwick via my colleague Becky Krystal: Prepare as above, except you don’t just cut off the root, you cut off the underside of the leeks so the leaves are no longer connected. Then: “Put them in a container of ice water and let them soak for 15 minutes. You should see the sand falling down,” Becky wrote. An advantage of this method is that it uses less water when you’re trimming a bunch of leeks; The downside is that you have an extra set of dishes to clean.
Finally, you might see that some people recommend slicing the leeks first before placing them in a colander under running water or soaking them as above. While this is certainly an option, be aware that you could end up with dirt on your cutting board, and it would take more effort to dry them with more surface area for the water to cling to.
Once nice and sparkling clean, your leeks can be grilled, roasted, braised, fried, or thinly sliced and eaten raw in salads. The world is your oyster – or in this case, your leek.
Here are a few recipes using leeks to get you started: