November 18, 2014

New-to-Me: Cooking with Leeks

I learned so much by watching my mom in the kitchen. That's where she was (and still is) often found, either scrambling to get a weeknight dinner on the table, mixing up baked goods from memory, or experimenting to recreate something new she tried at a restaurant. She had worked in food service in various capacities over the decades, making her an incredible short order cook and an overflowing fount of knowledge when it came to tips and tricks.

While I would not be half the cook I am today without her, there were some setbacks to following in her footsteps. For starters, being a working mom meant that the time intensive prepwork of chopping vegetables and trimming meats was just not possible. She utilized prepared ingredients to quickly feed her family, saving the fuss of from-scratch cooking for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Second, having worked in fast food places and cafeterias meant that her range of cooking depended mostly on traditional, broadly accepted fare. It's a risky business to test new dishes and trendy ingredients, and the novelties in her various posts were limited to the kinds of variations you see popular chain restaurants churn out: bacon this, cheddar that, but nothing that hadn't already been consumed by the general public.

While I am in no way a foodie in the snarky-hipster-gourmand sense, I am quite a gastronomic anamoly for my family's way of eating. I love trying dishes from other food traditions, I make nearly everything from scratch, and I cook with fresh ingredients like leeks. Like I said, not exactly a trendsetter with my exotic ingredient of "leeks" here. But I don't know that I had ever even seen leeks before I got married. I was aware of their existence thanks to my Grandma's stories of the teacher forbidding students to eat leeks before coming to school, but this left a lot to my imagination. I figured that leeks looked like chives since this story was frequently reiteratred by my mom as we encountered chives near her flower beds. All I could imagine was that leeks were one of those weird old-people foods like horseradish or beets that people ate out of habit because back then they didn't have much else.

That all changed thanks to a recipe. I desperately wanted to recreate la Madeleine's country potato soup, but the copycat recipe called for leeks. For the first time in my life, I was forced to encounter leeks. Thankfully, Good Housekeeping (my favorite ever go-to cookbook) came to my rescue, providing not only a description of their preparation but also a picture so I could actually locate them in the produce section.

Leeks are like giant versions of green onions: layers of leaf interlapping around a hollow core, changing in color from white at the roots to dark green at the tips. I was quite surprised at how dirty leeks are. Once you cut into them, there is often dirt and sand between the leaf layers, particularly in the white parts closer to the root end. The dirty green parts pictured above and below were just easier to capture. Nearly half of the entire plant consists of these green parts. Tougher than the rest, they are usually discarded and not used in cooking from what I've seen.

Good Housekeeping suggests cutting into the leeks "lengthwise, almost halfway through, leaving 2 to 3 inches of the root ends uncut." Um, what? I've tried this method several times, and each time find myself puzzling at what exactly this looks like in practice, not to mention what this particular method accomplishes that just cutting all the way through wouldn't. (I captured my attempt with the shot below.) I usually end up trying it, only to remain puzzled and to end up resorting to the alternate instructions: "Or chop the trimmed leeks and swish in a bowl of cold water." There we go! Much better. 

Either way you cut them, the trimming part remains the same: you don't want the roots and you don't want the very dark green tops. Good Housekeeping suggests leaving only about an inch of the pale green area. I generally despair at throwing half of the leek away, but I advise you to ignore my stingy example in trying to keep more than an inch of the palest green part. The green parts really don't cook down like the pale parts do, and they will be noticeable in your final dish. Not the end of the world but frustrating when you could have avoided it.

I think Mom is proud that I'm trying new things, even if they're as un-exotic as leeks. She's had her fun trying new things in the kitchen, and she certainly doesn't begrudge me my chance to do the same. At her age and stage of life, she's past a lot of the whole food, from-scratch cooking trends making fresh reappearances among younger home cooks. Been there, done that. Nonetheless, I still think of her nearly every time I'm in the kitchen, even if it's just the funny stories she's reiterated to me over the years. The next best thing to all of those years admiring Mom in the kitchen and hearing her stories? Having my own stories to tell and hearing her admiration in return. Thanks, Mom, for your example, your retelling of Grandma's stories, and the courage to tackle new-to-me leeks.

*The Good Housekeeping Cookbook (2001) edited by Susan Westmoreland and published by Hearst Books (New York, NY) is available on Amazon. Or you can search for it at your book seller of choice by using its ISBN code of 1-58816-398-9. 

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