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The reward of the leek

leekA few weeks ago, I found myself having a portrait session with a leek. Just she, my camera and a dirty – or as I like to say, “Well loved” – sheet pan, which provided the background for the photo. I say “she” because to me the leek is feminine. Maybe it’s the frilly tuft of hair at the base, which used to be tucked well underground. Or perhaps it’s the elongated body in all shapes and sizes, with each as beautiful as the next. Then there are the top bright green leafy layers that extend out almost like a ball gown. It could be the subtle flavor of the leek that has me calling a vegetable a “she,” seeing it is not as aggressive as an onion. It often takes a bit of heat and gentle coaxing for you to get to know the real beauty of the leek. But if you put in the time and show the leek patience, you will be rewarded with great sweetness and a soft, yet complex flavor. 

Leeks are indeed a member of the onion family – a varied family tree with branches of shallots, garlic, chives and scallions. Unlike some of its cousins, leeks have a subtle flavor which benefits from long and slow roasting or braising. This mellow flavor marries well with seafood.

A well raised leek will have bright green leaves at the top and a firm, unblemished white stalk. Sand, grit and dirt like to hide well into the many layers of leeks, so it’s important that you clean them well. First, you will need to remove the outer layer of the leek, which tends to be a bit tough, unless it is extremely fresh. Cut off the hair (aka, the roots) and the darkest green parts of the top. Slice the leeks in half, exposing all those layers and run running water through them, as you use your hands to gently separate the layers. Drain the leeks well. If the recipe calls for chopped leeks, as the one below does, it is best to chop the leeks and then place in a bowl of water to remove any bits of dirt. Drain well before using.

The recipe below braises two chopped leeks in bacon. Not a bad way to braise, I’d say, but if bacon isn’t for you, you can simply use butter or olive oil in its place. The leeks will wilt in the fat and just slowly begin to caramelize. Leeks that have cooked slowly become tender and almost melt in your mouth in a way that butter does. With all this talk about slow cooking, I should also mention that leeks are great raw too – sliced thinly and added to greens loaded with fresh herbs and a touch of olive oil and lemon, well it’s just about the most perfect spring salad I can imagine. 

Today’s recipe is typical of our weeknight meals. It’s simple, comes together quickly and can be varied in any number of ways, depending on what’s lingering in the crisper. I love the creamy tang of goat cheese, the sweet onion flavor and the smoky bacon. It’s hearty and satisfying without leaving you feeling heavy. I hope you and your family enjoys it as much as we do.

by Ashley Rodriguez
food blogger

8 slices of bacon, roughly chopped
2 medium leeks
½ cup (4 ounces) goat cheese (chevre)
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1 pound fettuccine
Grated Parmesan and fresh parsley for finishing

Cook the pasta then drain reserving some of the pasta water. Add the pasta to a large bowl.
In a large sauté pan cook the bacon until crisp. Chop the white part of the leeks in rough 1/4” rounds and add to the bacon. Cook until leeks are tender, about 5-7 minutes. Stir in the thyme then remove from heat.
Stir in the bacon and goat cheese mixture with the pasta. Add pasta water as needed to make a creamy sauce. Finish with grated Parmesan and chopped parsley. Serve while hot.