Sweet, tender and mellow, leeks are at their very best at this time of year. Look for small tender ones, not much thicker than your middle finger. They are perfect steamed or poached, and delicious just brushed with olive oil and grilled; served with aioli, they make a simple but beautiful first course.
Leeks have a wonderful affinity with fish and poultry. In France, they are known as poor man's asparagus, but are nonetheless appreciated for their delicate, succulent flavour. They are also invaluable used in conjunction with other ingredients such as carrots and celery to form the base of soups and slow-cooked dishes.
Before you start, make sure you wash the leeks well under running water to remove the grit and dirt that tends to settle at their roots. Here are three recipes that showcase leeks as the star of a dish: a nice way to appreciate their unique and subtle flavour.
Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627, www.petershamnurseries.com
Poached leeks with butter and Parmesan
This sweet vegetable dish works with both baby and standard leeks. At home, I serve it with either roast chicken or no other accompaniment than a salad made of young spring leaves.
4 large or 16 small leeks
Enough water to cover
Sea salt and black pepper
120g/4oz unsalted butter
150g/5oz Parmesan cheese, grated
Wash the leeks thoroughly under cold running water. Pat dry and, using a sharp knife, cut off the dark green leaves at the top and slice off the base, leaving only the tender white stalk. Slice across into quarters and place in a shallow, heavy-based casserole.
Add enough water to cover. Season with salt and pepper and add the butter. Place over a medium heat and bring to a boil.
Turn down the heat to a gentle simmer and poach until about three-quarters of the water has evaporated. Add the Parmesan and taste for seasoning.
Let the dish sit for five minutes or until the Parmesan has melted and been incorporated into the rich, buttery sauce. Serve with roast chicken or grilled fish.
Leeks vinaigrette with eggs mimosa, capers and black olives
20-24 trimmed young leeks, well washed
200ml/7fl oz verjuice or sweet white wine
300ml/10fl oz water
8 whole black peppercorns
4 thyme sprigs
3 bay leaves
For the vinaigrette
11/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp single cream
Sea salt and black pepper
11/2 tbsp red-wine vinegar
80ml/3fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
2 eggs, hard-boiled
1 tbsp capers, preserved in salt and well rinsed in tepid water
A handful of black olives (ideally Niçoise or Ligurian)
Small bunch of curly parsley, stalks removed and finely chopped
Check that the leeks are thoroughly clean. Pour the verjuice and water into a pan (large enough to hold all the leeks) and add the peppercorns, thyme and bay leaves. Place over a medium heat and bring to a gentle boil, then add the leeks. Turn down the heat slightly and simmer gently for 8-10 minutes, or until tender.
Next, make the dressing. Put the mustard and cream into a small bowl, add a little salt and pepper and whisk together. Add the wine vinegar and stir to combine. Now, slowly add the olive oil in a thin, steady stream, whisking constantly to emulsify. Set aside for five minutes, to allow the flavours to get to know each other.
Meanwhile, peel the hard-boiled eggs and grate on the finest holes of your grater – they should have a very light texture. As soon as the leeks are cooked, remove from the pan and drain on kitchen paper. Lay neatly on top of each other on warm plates and spoon over half of the vinaigrette. Scatter the grated eggs, capers and olives randomly on top. Drizzle over the last of the vinaigrette, dust with pepper and sprinkle with chopped parsley to serve. '
Leeks with roasted shallots and balsamic vinegar
12 banana shallots
2tbsp olive oil
1tbsp balsamic vinegar
A sprig of lemon thyme
Sea salt and black pepper
12 small leeks
Heat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas7. Remove the outer skin of the shallots and slice in half lengthwise. Place in a roasting tray, toss with the oil, salt and pepper, drizzle over the balsamic, and scatter over the thyme. Cover with foil and place on the middle shelf of the oven and roast for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and roast for a further 20 minutes. The shallots should be a lovely golden-brown and caramelised.
While the shallots are cooking, remove the green leaves from the leeks and pat dry. Place in a saucepan large enough to hold them comfortably, season with a little salt and pepper and add enough water to cover. Place over a medium heat and poach for five minutes; the leeks should be just tender to the bite. Strain and dress with a little olive oil. Remove the shallots from the oven and leave to rest for five minutes, at which point, toss the leeks with the shallots and serve. I sometimes crumble delicate spring goat's cheese over the top .
The Forager by Wendy Fogarty
Petersham's food sourcer on the best places to buy leeks and their seeds...
Though similarly a member of the allium family, leeks are more subtle and delicate than onions and give a deep, sweet depth of flavour to dishes. There are two leek seasons: spring and summer. Spring leeks are eaten in the year following planting, and are those that are currently available.
Eden Farms, an organic-vegetable farm in north Lincolnshire, sells its leeks via its box scheme and at local farmers' markets (01790 763 582, www.edenfarms.co.uk)
For details of farmers and growers in your area, visit www.bigbarn.co.uk
The Real Seed Company, a small, independent seed producer in Wales, sells four varieties of leek, including Meziers Long Winter leek for winter/spring harvest and Jaune de Poitou (yellow leek) for early harvest (01239 821 107, www.realseeds.co.uk)
Marshalls Seeds sells two varieties: leek prenora plants (plant in May and harvest from end of September to end of March) and Musselburgh leek plants (plant in May and harvest from December to end of March. 01480 443 390, www.marshalls-seeds.co.uk)
Food Wales by Colin Pressdee (Graffeg, £12.95)
Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book by Jane Grigson (Penguin, £10.99)
Onions without Tears: Cooking with Onions and Shallots, Garlic and Leeks by Lindsay Bareham (Penguin, £12.50)