I'm currently reading Daniel Boulud's Letters To A Young Chef, a manual written to help neophyte chefs understand what it takes to succeed in this tough profession. Daniel Boulud is one of the world's most celebrated chefs and restaurateurs. The book was recommended to me by Boulud's protégé, Gavin Kaysen, who is currently my boss. At age 68 I am by no means a "young chef," but in terms of experience I'm still a rookie.
There is a chapter in Boulud's book entitled "The Ten Commandments of a Chef." Commandment #4 is "Waste Not!" "Nothing is a greater sin than taking a round vegetable, making it into a rectangle, and throwing the rest out. Every ingredient has a price tag, and you have both a moral and an economic obligation to transform it fully into delicious food. Waste is the mark of a chef with a lack of imagination." I've really been trying to take this advice to heart.
Commandment #4 was on my mind when I was recently gifted a dozen beautiful leeks from an enthusiastic home gardener. Leeks are the onion's milder, sweeter cousin. They are often used to flavor soups and stews. Most recipes tell you to cut off the green tops and discard them. This has less to do with flavor – the tops are quite delicious – but more to do with their fibrous texture. In the past, I'd save the leek tops in the freezer for making stock. It never seemed OK to pay good money for a vegetable and throw most of it away. But there isn't enough space in my tiny RV freezer for saving this many leek tops so I declared the weekend "Leekapalooza" and set out to take full advantage of my bounty and "Waste Not." What follows are the results of my endeavors.
How to clean leeks
Leeks are planted in trenches in sandy soil, and their tight, cylindrical shape is achieved by pushing soil around the plant base to create tight sheaths. As a consequence, leeks need to be thoroughly cleaned to remove the grit that accumulates inside the sheaths.
Begin by removing and discarding the first layer of tough, fibrous leaves. Trim off any damaged or discolored leaf ends. Carefully cut off the roots as close to the root as possible, leaving the bulb intact. Beginning about 1 ½ inches above the root end of the trimmed leeks, insert the tip of a paring knife and cut down the length of the leaves, leaving them attached at the root end. Fan out the leaves and wash well to remove any sand or dirt.
Classic French Leeks Vinaigrette
This dish gets better as it sits so it can be prepared ahead and served at room temperature.
12 medium leeks or 4 large leeks
Heavy pinch of kosher salt
For the vinaigrette:
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the garnish:
Chopped hard-boiled egg
Cut the bulb ends into 6-inch segments and reserve the dark green tops for other uses. (See recipe below for Buttered Leek Tops.)
In a pot wide enough to accommodate the horizontal length of the leeks, fill with about 2 inches of lightly salted water and bring to a boil. Add the leeks, all oriented the same direction and arranged in a single layer. Place a smaller diameter pan lid atop the leeks to keep them submerged. When the pot returns to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and cook gently for about 15 to 20 minutes, until they can easily be pierced by a knife, but before they get mushy.
Remove the leeks with a slotted spoon and stand them upright in a colander so that they can thoroughly drain. Reserve the poaching liquid for the next recipe.
To make the vinaigrette:
Mix together the mustard and vinegar in a small jar. Add the olive oil, salt and pepper. Cover the jar and shake vigorously.
When ready to serve, cut the leeks into halves through the bulb and arrange on a plate. Spoon the vinaigrette over the top, gently turning the leeks to coat. Garnish with chopped hard-boiled eggs and parsley. Serve at room temperature.
Leek and Potato Soup
5 small Yukon gold potatoes
3 medium leeks, cleaned and dark leaves removed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ teaspoon kosher salt, plus additional for seasoning
1 bay leaf
1 thyme sprig (optional)
1 rosemary sprig (optional)
1 quart of leek poaching liquid from previous recipe, or vegetable stock
1 cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon white pepper
For garnish (optional):
2 strips of bacon, crispy fried and crumbled
1 tablespoon snipped chives
Peel and cut the potatoes into small cubes. Put potatoes into a bowl and cover with 4 cups of cold water. (This is best done several hours ahead to create a starchy cooking liquid.)
Thinly slice the leeks. Heat a large skillet and add the butter. When melted, add the leeks and the salt. Saute gently for about 30 to 40 minutes.
Drain the potatoes, reserving the soaking water.
Add the potatoes, bay leaf, leek poaching liquid or vegetable stock, and optional herbs. Cook until the potatoes are fork-tender.
Remove the pan from the heat and cool for about 10 minutes. Take out the bay leaf and herb sprigs if using.
Puree in a blender or with a stick blender until smooth. Stir in the cream, and thin with the reserved potato soaking liquid until desired consistency is achieved.
Taste for seasoning. Add the pepper and salt as needed.
Garnish with chives and crumbled bacon.
Buttered Leek Tops
Leek tops reserved from the previous recipes
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Arrange the leek tops into piles and slice crosswise across the grain into half-inch strips.
In a large frying pan or sauté pan over medium-high heat, warm 1 tablespoon of the butter and the olive oil. Add the leek tops and season with the salt.
Cover the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring every 5 minutes or so until the leek tops are very tender, about 30 to 40 minutes.
Take the pan off the heat and add the remaining tablespoon of butter and stir into the leeks. Taste and add salt as needed.
Peter Glatz lives and cooks in a converted school bus with his wife and dog.