Main course: Serves 4


My mother was forever putting this delicious assembly together when I was growing up. There is something deeply comforting about a dish of boiled, drained vegetables covered in a savoury white sauce - and it's a preparation that continues to appeal to this very day. Some cynics might view this as nothing more than a childhood memory, smacking of a kind of post-war English cookery "make-do" scenario: "Just boil it and blanket with a thick sauce", that sort of thing. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Now, I reckon there are possibly no more than 100 British housewives today who would contemplate making a pan of savoury white sauce on a daily basis. In Italy, where it's called salsa besciamella, tens of thousands of litres of it are made every day in the home, the restaurant and in food processing factories (the Parmalat brand, exported to the UK in pasteurised cartons, is just one of many examples of a huge, indigenous industry). Even in France (sauce bechamel), I reckon maman doesn't make it anywhere near as often as she used to.

It is still occasionally called "betchimull sorse" here, but by the type of reluctant short-order cook who insists that any sauce made with flour is "No good, mate. We do 'veloo-ays' and 'joos' 'ere." Even though thousands of sad, lazy Brits eat a version of it every day out of cartons of supermarket lasagne and cannelloni, they wouldn't know it was there to save their grim lives. I could say that I don't give a damn. But, I really do, you know.

For the white sauce

500ml milk
2 cloves
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper
75g butter
50g flour
150ml single cream
freshly grated nutmeg

8 large leeks, trimmed of almost all their green parts, sliced into 5cm lengths and thoroughly washed.

Heat together the milk, cloves, onion, bay and a little salt. Simmer for a few minutes, cover and allow the flavours to mingle for 10 minutes. In another pan, melt the butter and stir in the flour. Make a roux and gently cook the butter and flour together for a minute or so, but don't allow it to colour. Strain the milk into the roux and vigorously whisk together until smooth. On the lowest possible heat (preferably with a heat-diffuser pad), set the sauce to cook.

You might think that the sauce is very thick to begin with but, as it simmers, the texture will become silky and unctuous. Remember, cream is added later, too. Do not cover the sauce as it cooks, but stir from time to time with a wooden spoon and continue in this fashion for 20 minutes or so. Finally, add the cream, nutmeg and pepper, mix in thoroughly, check for salt and cook for a further 5 minutes. Cover and keep warm.

Switch the kettle on and put the leeks into a pan. When the water has boiled, pour it over the leeks and add a little salt. Bring back to the boil and cook them for between 5 and 10 minutes, depending upon how thick your leeks are; test with a small, sharp knife for tenderness. You don't want crunchy leeks; nor do you want sloppy ones. Drain, lay in a preheated, shallow, oven-proof dish and pour over the white sauce.

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