Wallflowers of the greengrocer, leeks often sit forlornly in the bin looking like green onions on steroids, passed over by shoppers. Though they are available year-round, we tend to think of these mildest relatives of the onion family as foreign visitors-called upon when we want to impress friends with continental classics such as vichyssoise or potage Parmentier.
Leeks deserve a more rounded reputation, especially during the spring and fall when their slightly sweet, gentle flavors are at seasonal peaks. Cooking experts have known that for ages: Leeks were cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, mentioned in the Holy Bible, used by the Romans, and even spoken of by Shakespeare in Henry V. Introduced into Great Britain in the Middle Ages, leeks became the "national vegetable" of Wales after Welsh warriors affixed the plant to their helmets to distinguish themselves from their enemy, and beat the Saxons in battle.
Alas, we ignore this illustrious past. All too often, recipes insultingly suggest that pungent green onions be used as a substitute when leeks are not available. We add to the slight by condemning their cost and bemoaning the grit that must be washed off-another bit of unfairness because today leeks are often marketed well-cleaned.
Contrast this to the treatment in many parts of Europe, where leeks are praised for their delicacy. Known by the sobriquet "poor man's asparagus," they are served proudly on their own. They shine in their star turn and command center of the plate when braised with mushrooms or served cordon bleu-style with cheese and ham. They easily stand up to the rich flavors of a beer-based beef stew and can transform a frittata into something special. Like many wallflowers watching from the sidelines, leeks are potentially belles of the ball. All they ask for is a willing hand and a chance.
To turn leek's reputation around, we're offering an all-star medley of recipes.