Food and Drink: I've never met a leek that disagreed with me

THEY must have been very small leeks indeed that King Cadwallader's men wore in their caps to do battle against the Saxons, for there are parts of the world where the leek grows large indeed, sometimes thick as an arm, and would be more useful as a weapon than as a badge of Welsh honour. The proud names of these giant varieties have a certain tabloid-headline ring: the Monster of Carentan, the Giant of Verrieres; the smaller ones, and very delicious they are when semi-wild, tend to grow in isolated islands such as Malta and Lampedusa.

But wherever they grow - and they are much prized in France and northern Italy - leeks are substantial fare with a wide variety of uses, and have been valued since Roman times: Nero, after all, though that is no particular recommendation, was known as Porrophagus, after the leek's Latin name, porrum (poirot in French, porro in Italian). The reason is precisely their versatility, that they are good by themselves, good hot or cold, and combine well with other flavours. Add to that the fact that they are available from autumn to late spring and not very expensive and you can see why they figure so largely in so many cuisines.

If there are any prejudices about leeks it is either because there are some people with whom leeks disagree, or because they can be gritty from inadequate washing. Little can be done about the former, but the latter can be solved: cut off the green upper part (it can be saved for soups), slice the leek in half lengthwise, fan its leaves open and rinse thoroughly under running cold water.

Vichyssoise, which is the rather chic way many people first encounter leeks, was the masterwork of a French chef called Diat. It is, with a true gazpacho, one of the two great cold soups.

Vichyssoise

Serves 8

4 leeks

1 medium onion, sliced

2tbs butter

5 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced

2 pints/1 litre chicken stock

1 pint/560ml milk

1 pint/560ml single cream

1/2 pint/280ml double cream

freshly ground white pepper

finely chopped chives

Preparation: Slice the whites of the leeks finely, and saute them with onion in butter until wilted; add potatoes and stock with a little salt and boil for 35 to 40 minutes. Blend at low speed in a processor or mash in mouli, return to heat and add milk and single cream; season and bring to boil; add double cream and serve sprinkled with chives.

Leeks are among my favourite salads.

Leeks vinaigrette

Serves 6

6-12 leeks, more if small

2 finely chopped hard-boiled eggs

For the vinaigrette: good oil (it need not be olive, and walnut is excellent)

white wine vinegar, mild mustard

2tbs finely chopped shallots

1tsp chopped parsley

1tsp fresh chopped tarragon (if dried, halve the amount)

salt and pepper to taste

Preparation: Trim the root end and split leeks down centre but do not cut entirely, tie with string and simmer in boiling water until tender: do not overcook. Make your vinaigrette according to taste, untie the leeks, put them in a shallow dish, pour the vinaigrette over the leeks and allow to marinate overnight. Garnish with the chopped hard-boiled eggs. Some like it refrigerated; I do not.

A great winter dish is the north Italian fagioli con porri. It is not only excellent freshly cooked, but will also do very nicely indeed served cold the next day.

Fagioli con porri

Serves 6

2tbs olive oil

2 medium leeks, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced

1 finely chopped medium carrot

1 onion, finely chopped

2 cloves minced garlic

2 tins well-drained white beans, or 1lb/500g cooked dry white beans (best prepared in a pressure cooker for about 12-15 minutes)

1 pint/600ml stock (veal is best, chicken not recommended)

1lb/500g tomatoes peeled and cored (or 2tbs tomato concentrate)

2 sprigs fresh thyme (or 1/2 tsp dried)

freshly ground black pepper

Preparation: Put the leeks, carrots, garlic and onion in a heavy pot and saute in oil for about 5 minutes, until leeks are wilted. Add beans, stock, tomatoes and thyme and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Season and serve.

Another fine winter vegetable dish is roasted leeks, or porri al forno. For this you need small leeks. They are cooked whole with very coarse salt and oil. You need an oven dish in which they can be closely packed, side by side, in a single layer. Pour olive oil in sufficient quantity to keep the leeks from drying, turning them to make sure they are evenly coated. Sprinkle generously with coarse salt. Preheat the oven to 500F/250C/ gas 9 and put the leeks in the top of the oven. Roast for about 10 minutes, turn and roast for another 7 to 10 minutes. They should be browned on the outside and tender inside. Serve very hot.

Leeks are good braised in stock; they blend well with cream and can be baked like cauliflower; they are refined in a mornay sauce, princely wrapped in bacon in a quiche, splendid cooked slowly in goose fat (not too much]) with apples and leftover ham. So why do some people drop them in a pot and turn them to pulp? Leeks should be sleek, whole, a delicate green and sensuous in the mouth.

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