Monsieur poireau; Things to do with a leek

The restaurant appeared plain and serious but not poncey on its corner of the square: a reliable sign when on the look out for a decent lunch Photograph by Jean Cazals
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That old chestnut, The Michelin Guide, sometimes throws up a real winner. Whilst travelling with Lindsey Bareham, my trusty amigo, map reader and exceptional cookery book author (and my collaborator), to France earlier this year, we suddenly came over all hungry about 80 miles north of Paris.

"What's the exit number?" I kindly enquired. Lindsey's finger scuttled across the web of roads. "Oh.... I think it's... um... Nine! No! - Ten! No! - Eight! The "suivre" (exit) marked "8", had possibly never been quite so swiftly taken, even by a mad Parisian.

The small town of Roye was a brief map-folding off the autoroute, and the locals were clearly all enjoying lunch as we pulled into the deserted square. La Flamiche - for that is the name of the singly stellated establishment favoured by the little red book - appeared plain and serious but not poncey on its corner of the square: a reliable sign when on the look out for a decent lunch.

One of the specialities listed in the book is, naturellement, "La Flamiche aux Poireaux". Imagine our disappointment on discovering that said flamiche was unavailable due to seasonal unavailability of les poireaux (leeks). Fifty kilometres of salivation instantly quashed in the shaking of a napkin.

I know I wrote about leeks on these pages last year - five recipes, in fact. But as they have now come back into season, I am moved to plunder them once more. What is equally to the point, however, is that, later, looking through an out-of-date French food magazine, I saw a full-page colour plate of the best-looking flamiche I had ever seen. And guess where the recipe was from? Only this little restaurant in northern France, about 80 miles north of Paris.

Leek recipes are endless, as far as I can see. Their mild flavour marries with almost anything - meat, fish (especially), eggs and other vegetables, too. Here are a further three recipes for this year:

Baked leeks and ham with mustard sauce and cheese, serves 4

The dish is inspired by the classic French dish, endive au gratin, where braised chicory is wrapped in slices of ham, buried in a rich bechamel and finished with cheese and breadcrumbs. I prefer to use Lancashire, finished with Parmesan mixed with breadcrumbs.

8 small leeks, trimmed of all green, their ends split, washed and each one cut to about 6" long

8 neat and thin slices of cooked ham

75g/3oz grated Lancashire cheese

50g/2oz fresh breadcrumbs

25g/1 oz freshly grated Parmesan

a little softened butter

For the sauce

570ml/1 pt milk

4 cloves

1 onion, peeled and chopped

I bay leaf

75g/3oz butter

50g/2oz flour

150ml/5fl oz single cream

freshly grated nutmeg

salt and pepper

1 tbsp Dijon mustard

Heat together the milk, cloves, onion, bay and a little salt. Simmer for a few minutes, cover and allow the flavours to mingle for about 12 hour. Melt the butter in another pan and stir in the flour. Make a roux and gently cook the butter and flour together for a minute or two. On no account allow it to colour - it must stay pale. But it is important that the flour "cooks". Strain the milk into the roux and vigorously whisk together until smooth (this always gets rid of any lumps). Set the sauce to cook on the lowest possible heat (preferably, with a heat-diffuser pad). You may think the sauce is very thick to begin with. As it cooks, however, the consistency will become silky and unctuous and, remember, there is cream to add at the end. Do not cover the sauce, stir from time to time with a wooden spoon and cook for about 30 minutes. Add the cream, nutmeg, pepper and mustard, mix in thoroughly, check for salt and cook for a further 5 minutes. Strain again into a clean pan and put a lid on, as this helps to prevent skin forming. Keep warm.

Pre-heat the oven to 375190 gas mark 5. Put the kettle on and put the leeks into a pan. When the water has boiled, pour over the leeks and add a little salt. Bring back to the boil and cook for between 5 and 10 minutes; test with a small sharp knife for tenderness. You don't want crunchy leeks, but neither do you want sloppy ones. Drain carefully in a colander, and lay on kitchen paper. Leave for 5 minutes, to ensure all the water has drained away.

Wrap each leek in the slices of ham and lay into a shallow, lightly buttered, oven-proof dish and pour over the sauce. Strew with the grated Lancashire cheese and then cover lightly with the fresh breadcrumbs mixed with the Parmesan. Dot with butter and put into the oven for about 25 minutes, or until lightly golden and bubbling around the edges.

Flamiche aux poireaux, serves 4, generously

You can now buy ready rolled circles of fresh puff pastry. The ones I have found have been of good quality and weigh in at 250g a piece. You will need two of these, which is just perfect for this recipe. Note: you will need two flat baking sheets.

75g/3oz butter

2lb/900g leeks, trimmed of most of the green, trimmed, sliced and well washed, and drained

salt pepper and freshly grated nutmeg

1 lb/450g puff pastry

5-6 tbsp double cream

1 egg yolk

Melt the butter in a wide frying pan and cook the leeks gently for about 20 minutes until really soft. Season, turn up the heat, and add the cream. Allow to bubble vigorously for a minute or two until the mixture is creamy, but not too wet. Tip onto a plate and allow to cool.

Pre-heat the oven to 425F/220C/gas mark 7. Place one of the flat (with no edges) baking trays into the oven to get hot. Lightly smear the other one with butter and lay one of the circles of puff pastry on it. Take the cooled leeks and spread them carefully into a piled, though flat-ish, circle over the pastry, leaving an edge of 2.5cm/1" uncovered; paint this with beaten egg yolk. Form a lid with the other circle of pastry and allow the edge of this to flop down onto the bottom layer. Press together lightly all the way around. Now brush the whole surface with more egg wash and firmly press the edges together with the tines of a fork. Make small cuts in the centre of the flamiche to allow steam to escape. Decorate with the point of a knife if you are in an artistic mood.

Slide the flamiche into the oven, onto the pre-heated tray. Bake for around 25 minutes or until golden brown and well crisped. Allow to cool for 6 minutes before serving. Cut into wedges and eat with salad or just on its own.

Cockieleekie, serves 6-8

Not just chicken and leek soup; moreover, it is a substantial meal in itself. I wonder how many of you know about the inclusion of prunes? Mad in a way, but they really do make the dish.

2lb/900g piece of stewing beef (none-too-fatty brisket would be good)

1 x 3lb/1.4 kilo chicken

salt and pepper

bouquet garni

3 large leeks, trimmed, washed and cut in half (not lengthways)

1 lb/450g prunes

3 medium sized leeks, trimmed, sliced and thoroughly washed

3 tbsp chopped parsley

Put the beef in a large pot that will also later accommodate the chicken and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and drain. Rinse the meat, put back in its pot and recover with fresh water. Bring up to a simmer, season and gently cook for 1 hour, skimming off any occasional spume of froth. Immerse the chicken at this point, together with the bouquet garni and the 3 large leeks and simmer for a further hour.

Remove the beef and chicken (discard the bouquet garni and leeks) and keep warm, covered with foil in a low oven. Remove any excess fat from the surface of the broth with a few sheets of kitchen paper, and then add the prunes and new leeks to the broth and simmer for 20 minutes. Check the seasoning and add the parsley.

Slice up the beef and chicken meat and distribute between individual, deep soup plates. Ladle over the broth, also allowing each serving a correct amount of leek and a number of prunes. Finally, grind some extra pepper over each serving