Food & Drink: Here's to the big softy of the onion family

The humble leek is versatile, inexpensive and delicious, declares Linds ey Bareham
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The Independent Online
It has always struck me as unfair that one of our most versatile, inexpensive and delicious vegetables is known as a poor man's asparagus. Much as I love asparagus (and I am prepared to fork out for the very finest from the Vale of Evesham), I eat leeks every week of the year.

Leeks go with everything. They are the softy of the onion family and are particularly delicious with eggs, with potatoes, mussels, and ham and bacon, and they can be made to look and taste so different.

You can cook them whole, slice them into rounds, split then dice them, or cut them into julienne. You can even use single layers as wrappers or draped over ramekins to encase delicate mousselines.

They can be sauteed, gratineed, baked, boiled, steamed and grilled. Finely sliced and deep-fried, they make a surprisingly tasty garnish, and parboiled baby leeks are delicious in tempura style, dipped in batter and deep-fried.

Aesthetically I like the look of the stumpy traditional leek with a thick white base and an equal quantity of coarse dark-green leaves. But, given the choice, I buy the long, thinner kind of leek with less of the greenery that is good for the stockpot but not much else.

I like the fact that leeks can sit happily at the bottom of the fridge for up to a week. Along with potatoes, leeks are my favourite convenience food. They get whizzed into sauces to make more of poached eggs; stewed with mint to serve with lamb chops; and wrapped in ham or bacon, smothered with a cheese sauce and grilled until the top is crusty.

Leeks are an exquisite addition to sauces and soups such as vichyssoise because, once cooked and liquidised, they turn into a thick, silky puree. They are good combined with tomatoes, in cheese dishes and with pastry, or cooked with cream, and with citrus juices.

The tricky thing about cooking whole leeks is that they get waterlogged and are difficult to drain. They are also very easy to overcook. I find it simpler to get good results by steaming them and I start checking their readiness after four minutes.

The other problem about cooking whole leeks is the earth that gets lodged between their papery layers. This is best removed by a long soaking in cold water and a good shake.

Minted leek with bulgar

Bulgar is cracked wheat that is ready to eat after a 30-minute soaking in boiling water. It is a nutty, moist and light yet filling alternative to rice or pasta and good hot or cold.

In this recipe it is dressed with olive oil and lemon juice and mixed with lightly cooked leeks and mint. I make it up in big batches for my lunch during the week and to satisfy post-school fridge-cruising. It is also a useful vegetarian dish and goes extremely well with humous and lamb kebabs.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients: 225g/8oz bulgar

4-6 leeks, minus roots and obviously tough green bits

6tbs olive oil

4tbs lemon juice

4tbs fresh mint leaves, chopped

Maldon sea salt and black pepper

Preparation: Tip the bulgar into a large bowl, place under a cold-water tap and rinse the cracked wheat until the water runs clean. Pour on boiling water to a depth of 2in above the wheat, cover with a plate and leave for 30 minutes. Drain thoroughly in a colander, pressing down to get rid of excess water.

Pour the lemon juice into a suitable serving bowl, season generously with salt and pepper, whisk in the olive oil, then stir in the bulgar.

Slice the leeks into thick rings, rinse away any mud and cook in vigorously boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain the leeks and stir into the bulgar with the mint, reserving a little to sprinkle on as a garnish. Check the seasoning and serve.

Grilled leeks on Villandry parchment bread with tarragon

In fashionable restaurants, leeks are char-grilled. This concentrates their flavour, making them delicious on their own, with a dribble of olive oil or a mustardy vinaigrette. I like them mixed with boiled then grilled potatoes and topped with taleggio or another soft cheese. To get those attractive cross-hatched stripes, and in order not to dry out their outer layer, you need to grill leeks on a ridged cooker-top grill pan or over a barbecue. They are most successful when boiled or steamed first. This dish is pinched from a Villandry Dining Room monthly dinner menu (89 Marylebone High Street, London W1) and it is a good match of texture and flavour with or without the poppadom-like parchment bread. The ''bread'', incidentally, is easy to burn so don't take your eyes off it while it is baking.

Serves 6

Ingredients: for the bread: 225g/6oz unbleached flour

110g/2oz cornmeal

generous pinch salt

4tbs warm water

4tbs olive oil

for the leek topping: 12 leeks, cut into 3in lengths and steamed until tender

tarragon leaves fried for a few seconds in clarified butter or vegetable oil

small slab of fresh parmesan

olive oil

Preparation: To make the bread, place all the bread ingredients together in a bowl and combine, first using a wooden spoon and then your hands, until you have a semi-stiff dough. Knead lightly until smooth and pliable. Allow the dough to rest for 1 hour, then divide it into 6 pieces. On a floured surface, roll one of the pieces as thinly as possible to bake a sheet approximately 6in x 8in. Then repeat with the 5 other lumps of dough.

Place the sheets on oiled baking trays and cook at the top of a hot oven (400F/200C/gas 6) for 3 minutes until the surface begins to bubble. Turn and cook the other side for 2-3 minutes until it is golden brown; check that the other side is cooked to a crisp and keep warm.

To grill the leeks, brush both sides with olive oil and place them on a pre-heated grill pan. Turn them once 45 degrees, to make a cross-hatch or grill marks, and cook both sides until seared. To serve, lay the sheets of bread on 6 plates, divide the leeks between them and drizzle with olive oil. Use a potato peeler to shave parmesan slices generously over the surface, and sprinkle with the deep-fried tarragon.

Lindsey Bareham is author of 'In Praise of the Potato' (Michael Joseph, pounds 15.99) and 'A Celebration of Soup' (Penguin, pounds 12).

(Photograph omitted)