Food: Spring a leek

Prize-winning recipes for end-of-season alliums.
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I'm so accustomed to seeing leeks neatly trimmed and film-wrapped, or loose but with only the remnants of their their plumage attached, I had forgotten how voluminous and leafy they can be. A large trayful of fat organic leeks was so arresting that a small queue of shoppers had formed. These were soil-covered brutes, not far off being contenders for a north-country prize vegetable show.

Then I found myself glued to a television programme on the subject of leeks, in awe of the obsessiveness of amateur growers. There was the man who refused to go on holiday with his wife because he couldn't face leaving his greenhouse (she was very understanding about it), and another who made midnight forays to switch on a ragtime cassette, with a song to fit their every growing cycle. Friends who live in Northumberland say the competition can get seriously fierce. It's a happy-go-lucky grower who risks going down the pub of an evening as the leeks near show day - they are liable to return to all manner of unspeakable sabotage.

As you might imagine, such whoppers are far from being the best leeks for the table, and it wasn't so much the size of the organic leeks that impressed as the beauty of their palm-tree-like foliage. I do know one or two cooks who make soup with these dark green leaves, but I am inclined to think they are only good for the stockpot. Once the white of the leek has travelled into pale green it's time to stop chopping.

Vichyssoise, if you take the sieving in earnest, emerges with the consistency of liquid silk. It's one of the world's greatest soups, particularly in the hands of a chef such as Marco Pierre White, who uses it to flood lightly poached oysters , then spoons on top caviar in whipped cream - there aren't many textures that can match the exquisite refinement of this soup.

There is a fundamental difference between vichyssoise and leek and potato soup. The first relies heavily on cream, which is all to the good of the texture if not so great for flavour. The true lover of leeks may derive more satisfaction from a leek and potato soup, which has more to do with vegetables, a rough and ready affair with no cream and no sieving. This is another great soup, albeit a far more modest and homely one. ( I have never witnessed my baby eat anything with greater gusto, except for Simon Hopkinson's chocolate tart, as cooked by a friend one Sunday lunchtime.)

I can't bang on too much about suet here, but those puddings filled with leeks which steam away for a few hours while the sweet juices soak into the fluffy suet crust are more in the way of homely cooking. Likewise, leek tarts - the delectable French "flamiche" and its type, which have a great deal to do with the happy marriage of cheese, leeks and eggs.

My neighbour popped over a basket of fresh bantam eggs from Somerset at about the same time as I acquired my haul of gargantuan leeks. The eggs were deep brown with golden yolks, which conspired happily into this omelette with melted Gruyere cheese.

Open-faced leek and Gruyere omelette, serves 4

This is rich, so a plain green salad is all that's needed before, with or after it.

225g leeks, trimmed weight, thinly sliced

1 bay leaf

125g unsalted butter

1 tsp plain flour

a little milk

150ml double cream

sea salt, black pepper

2 large slices day-old white bread, crusts removed

5 large organic eggs

2 tsp vegetable oil

50g grated Gruyere

Sweat the leeks with the bay leaf in a small saucepan in 25g of butter until they are soft and translucent. Blend the flour with a little milk and combine it with the cream, add this to the leeks and season. Bring to a simmer and cook very gently for about eight minutes until the leeks are soft, thick and creamy. Keep a watchful eye and stir frequently. Remove the bay leaf.

To make croutons, first dice the bread. Melt the 100g of butter in a frying pan, skim off the surface foam, decant the clear liquid and discard any milky solids in the base. Heat the clarified butter in the frying pan, and once it is hot enough to surround a cube of bread with bubbles, add all the diced bread and cook, tossing until crisp and golden. Remove the croutons and drain on kitchen paper.

Preheat the grill. Break the eggs into a bowl, season and whisk lightly. Heat the oil in a frying pan with an 18cm base, and when it appears very hot, tip out the excess. Add the eggs and scramble rapidly for 30 seconds until almost set. Allow another 30 seconds for the base to set. Spoon the hot leeks over the omelette and scatter over the cheese. Place under the grill until the cheese is bubbling and serve straight away scattered with croutons.

Leek and potato soup, serves 4

50g unsalted butter

700g leeks, trimmed weight, sliced

175g onions, peeled and chopped

1 litre fresh vegetable stock

175g main-crop potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

sea salt, black pepper

snipped chives

Melt the butter in a large saucepan and sweat the leeks and onions for some minutes, until they are silky and soft, without colouring. Bring the stock to the boil in a separate pan. Add the sliced potato to the leeks and stir them around for a minute, then pour the boiling stock over, season and simmer for eight minutes. Blitz in a food processor until you have a textured slurry. Scatter some chives over each

bowlful as you serve it.

Roasted leeks vinaigrette, serves 4

800g leeks, trimmed weight

5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 tbsp white wine

sea salt, black pepper

2 tsp red wine vinegar

12 tsp Dijon mustard

2 large organic eggs

Preheat the oven to 180C fan oven/ 190C electric oven/375F/Gas 5. Remove the outer layer of the leeks, or more if you can see dirt trapped. Place in a baking dish, pour over 3tbsp of the oil, the wine and seasoning and bake for 50 minutes. Once cool enough to handle, slit the leeks to remove the cooked centre and discard the dried outer layer. Cut the leeks lengthwise into thin (5cm) strips.

Blend the vinegar with the mustard and seasoning and add the remaining oil and the roasting juices. Pour the dressing over the leeks. Cover and chill until required - the salad will improve overnight.

To serve, bring back to room temperature. Boil the eggs for 10 minutes and allow to cool. Peel, and discard one of the whites. Finely chop the yolks and the remaining white and scatter over the salad.

Calzone with leeks, thyme and Provolone, serves 4

A calzone is basically a stuffed pizza, which looks like a Cornish pasty, delicious eaten warm from the oven.

dough

12 tsp dried yeast

12 tsp caster sugar

300g strong white flour

l heaped tsp sea salt

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

175ml hand-hot water

filling

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

40g unsalted butter

3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

750g leeks (trimmed weight), halved and sliced

1 heaped tsp thyme leaves

sea salt, black pepper

170g butternut squash (trimmed weight)

170g demi-sec goat's cheese, cubed

85g Provolone, grated

1 large egg, beaten

extra virgin olive oil

To make the dough, place all the dry ingredients in a bowl, add the olive oil and gradually add the water, bringing the dough together with your hand. Knead the dough on a floured surface for around 8-10 minutes until it is smooth and elastic. If you do this in an orbital mixer or a food processor, you'll need to halve the kneading time.

Place the dough in a lightly floured bowl, slash a cross on the surface to help it rise, and sprinkle on a little more flour. Loosely cover it with a plastic bag and place it in warm, draught-free spot. Leave it to rise for between one and three hours.

Heat the olive oil and 25g of butter in a large frying pan and add the garlic. When it gives off an aroma add the leeks, the thyme and seasoning. Cook for approximately 8 minutes, stirring frequently until they are soft and cooked but not coloured. Remove to a bowl and cool.

Thinly slice the squash. Melt the remaining butter in the frying pan and sweat the squash for 3-4 minutes until just soft. Add to the leeks and allow to cool. Mix the cheeses with the leeks and adjust the seasoning.

Punch the dough down, sprinkling with the flour as necessary, and knead it for a minute or two. Divide it into six, roll each piece to a circle 22cm in diameter, and leave them to rest for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 200C fan oven/220C electric oven/425F/Gas 7. Place some of the filling on one half of each circle. Beat the egg with 1 dessert spoon of water and paint the perimeter of each dough circle. Fold the unfilled half on top of the filled half. Press the edges together and trim with a pastry cutter. Lightly brush the surface of the calzone with the olive oil and bake for 12-15 minutes until pale golden, but not too crisp. Eat while warm

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