Leeks, celery root, Asian pears
We are so fortunate to be living in this bountiful area of the country, where there always seems to be wonderful things to eat in the farmers markets. I find that some of the produce I enjoy so much, other people rarely cook or eat. Standing at the stalls in the farmers markets I often get the question “What do you do with that?” Here are some answers.
I recently had some company over for dinner, and made what I think of as a very simple preparation of leeks in cream, and my guests that evening were almost licking their plates. It is sad to me that so few people cook this delicious, mild member of the allium family.
About the only tricky thing regarding preparing leeks is that they can be sandy, so the method for cleaning them is very important. What I like to do is to cut off the roots, and any excess green tops (I usually use about 4 to 6 inches of the green top part, depending on the size of the leeks themselves) and then split the leeks down the middle.
After that, cut them in 1/8-inch or so slices crosswise, and then put the slices into a big colander set in a bigger bowl of water. I actually use my lettuce spinner for this job, and it works perfectly, although I don’t need the spinning function. I wash them in at least two changes of water, swishing them around soundly, to make sure there is no more sand in the bottom of the bowl before draining them.
After that my two favorite ways to cook them are either in cream, or in olive oil. To make the leeks in cream, heat about one tablespoon of butter per big leek in a large pan. Add the washed and cut up leeks and stir until they begin to wilt. When the green color has brightened up and the leeks have softened, pour in some heavy cream, about two tablespoons per leek, and cook for another few minutes until tender. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
The second way, with olive oil, is to heat a bit of olive oil (not extra-virgin, which you should reserve for serving uncooked) in a big pan, add the cleaned and cut leeks and a bit of garlic, finely chopped. Stir and cook, seasoning with salt and pepper, until they are as tender as you like them to be. If they happen to get dry, add a splash or two of water.
Leeks are traditionally used in potato-leek soup, or vichyssoise, which is pureed and chilled potato-leek soup that is finished with some cream. They are also very nice in vegetable soup. You can also cook them until tender in beef or chicken broth with some fresh thyme, put them in a shallow casserole dish, and finish them with some good quality Parmesan cheese, dot them with a bit of butter, and put them under the broiler until they are speckled golden brown for a lovely gratin.
Celeriac, or celery root, is one of those vegetables that “gets no respect,” to quote a certain famous comedian. It is not the root of the common head of celery, but it is related. When I spoke to the farmer who had it on Tuesday, he told me it was the first of the season, and that he had just been waiting for it to get cold at night, as celeriac demands those kinds of conditions.