food; Really neat

Hidden talents of the humble leek
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Well lookee here! It's 16 December and this is a whole column not devoted in any way at all to Christmas. Next week, we'll applaud some openers to have before the star bird makes his entrance. But this page is devoted to leeks. Yes, leeks. Lowly fare you might say, but not me. At this time of year the leek is fat and fragrant with a mild and sweet allium aroma.

I have always been fond of leeks. I remember them plainly boiled in a little water, drained and then blanketed in a white sauce. It is a basic, very English way of mildly tarting up a vegetable and turning it into a "dish". But when this was served at home, I always enjoyed it - wet, warm, and soggy really, but very comforting.

Both my mother and father were good, interested cooks, and their enthusiasm was infectious. It has helped me to be a bit greedy, care a great deal about ingredients and possess a modicum of skill in getting the best out of them. This does not mean extravagant or absurdly complicated dishes; the simpler and more modest ones are often the most rewarding.

Leeks sit perfectly in this category. They are a neat and tidy vegetable, whose singular flavour marries well with a legion of good things. Ironically, extravagant ingredients, such as fresh black truffles, foie gras and caviar, are remarkably good partnered with leeks, but you shouldn't experiment until you have, for want of a better maxim, "done" the simpler dishes. By this I mean, leeks vinaigrette, buttered leeks with sage and Parmesan, leeks and potatoes baked with cream and anchovies (just about veggie) or, to be slightly indulgent, warm leek puree with white truffle oil. And then there is the white sauce to get ready. So let's crack on.

Leeks in white sauce, serves 4

570ml/1 pint milk

4 cloves

1 onion, peeled and chopped

1 bay leaf

salt

80g/3oz butter

55g/2oz flour

150ml/5 fl oz single cream

freshly-grated nutmeg

pepper

8 large leeks, trimmed, sliced into 5 cm/2" 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 mix for about half an hour. 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 two, but 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). On the lowest possible heat (preferably with a heat-diffuser pad), set the sauce to cook. Do not cover. Cook for about 30 minutes, stirring from time to time with a wooden spoon. You may think that the sauce is very thick to begin with but, as it cooks, it will become silky and unctuous. Add the cream, nutmeg and pepper, mix in thoroughly, check for salt and cook for a further five minutes. Strain again into a clean pan and put a lid on, as this helps to prevent a skin forming. Keep warm.

Pre-heat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5.

Put the kettle on and place the leeks in a pan. When the water has boiled, pour it over the leeks and add a little salt. Bring back to the boil and cook for between five and ten minutes, depending on how thick your leeks are; 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 for a good ten minutes to ensure that all the water has drained away. Lay in a shallow, oven- proof dish and pour over the sauce. If you want cheesy leeks, strew with a little grated Lancashire (my preference) and fresh breadcrumbs. Dot with butter and cook for about 20 minutes, or until lightly golden and bubbling around the edges.

Leeks vinaigrette, serves 4

This is a dressing you will get used to making - a little more oil here, a little more water there, until it seems just right. The quantity here is more than you are going to need. Fret not. Put it in a screw-top jar in the fridge and it will keep for a few weeks - remove from the fridge about half an hour before using it. I find this creamy vinaigrette very versatile and it is particularly good on hot vegetables, particularly potatoes served with a Continental boiling sausage.

8 large leeks, trimmed and sliced into 2.5 cm/ 1" lengths and thoroughly washed. Or you could use 16 smaller ones and leave them whole

salt

2 tbsp Dijon mustard

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

300-450ml/ 12-34 pint groundnut or other flavourless oil

2 hard-boiled eggs

1 tbsp chopped chives

black pepper

Boil the leeks in plenty of salted water. When they are done (just slightly less cooked than in the previous recipe), lift them out carefully with a slotted spoon and neatly put to drain on a tea towel.

While the leeks are cooling, make the dressing. Put the mustard, vinegar and salt in a blender with 4-5 tablespoons of warm water. Switch on and blend. With the motor running, add the oil in a thin stream until homogenised. If you think the dressing is too thick, add a little more water; if too thin, add more oil and perhaps a smidgen more mustard. The final consistency should be one of loose salad cream.

Arrange the leeks attractively in a suitable dish and spoon over the vinaigrette. Scatter with grated egg and chives, grind a little pepper over and serve with crusty bread. This dish is also good when served warm, and topped with a poached egg instead.

Buttered leeks with sage and Parmesan, serves 4

16 small leeks, trimmed and thoroughly washed

110g/4oz butter

12 sage leaves

55g/2oz freshly-grated Parmesan

28g/1oz fresh breadcrumbs

black pepper

extra Parmesan

Pre-heat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6.

Boil the leeks in plenty of salted water, drain with a slotted spoon and place on a tea towel. In an oven-proof dish, preferably oval (Le Creuset is perfect), heat the butter on top of the stove until frothing and add the sage leaves. Allow to crisp slightly and then put in the leeks. Turn through the butter and sage, sprinkle with the Parmesan and strew with breadcrumbs. Pop in the oven for 10-15 minutes until the cheese and crumbs have taken on a light golden hue. Grind over some black pepper and serve immediately, with extra Parmesan handed separately.

Leeks and potatoes baked with anchovies

This is the sort of dish you might want for a light lunch or late supper.

4 large fat leeks, trimmed, cut into 2.5cm/1" circles and carefully washed

a little softened butter

12-14 small waxy potatoes, boiled in their skins until half-cooked, peeled and sliced in half lengthways

1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 small tin (55g/2oz) anchovy fillets, chopped

150ml/5 fl oz whipped cream

150ml/5 fl oz milk

12 tbsp snipped chives

black pepper

Pre-heat the oven 190C/375F/gas mark 5.

Briefly boil the leeks until still a little crunchy. Drain well for at least ten minutes. Lightly butter an oven-proof dish and distribute the leeks and potatoes in a random fashion. In a bowl, mix together the garlic, anchovies, cream and milk, and then carefully spoon over the leeks. Put in the oven and bake for 30 minutes until the top is pale golden, the cream and milk mixture has thickened considerably and the vegetables are cooked through; check with a skewer or small knife. Strew with the chives and grind over plenty of pepper.

The anchovies should give the dish enough saline content, but if not, sprinkle over a little flaked sea salt; preferably Maldon.

Warm leek puree with truffle oil

This is an exceptionally easy dish, for one so luxurious.

1 large potato, peeled and sliced into chunks

4 large fat leeks, all traces of green removed, thickly sliced and washed

150ml/5 fl oz water

50ml/2 fl oz extra virgin olive oil

salt and white pepper

4 dsp double cream

2 tbsp truffle oil

Put the potato, leeks, water, olive oil and seasoning in a small, heavy-bottomed pan. Bring to a simmer and cook very gently indeed, or in a very low oven, until the vegetables are completely collapsed. While still hot (a cold mixture, when pureed, can become gluey), tip into a liquidiser and puree until very smooth and pass through a fine sieve. Serve warm, in shallow soup plates, with a little warmed cream spooned over, and then put some of the truffle oil over the top. Eat completely on its own. Any distraction, such as crusty bread or croutons, will spoil the sublime texture

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