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In the spirit of the season that’s in it, and unlike the collective bah-humbug coming from the Irish government, this month’s recipe of the month comes with knobs on, 50% extra free and no tax until at least six months after you’ve used it at least three times.
Besides being in a generous mood, I’ve been thinking about leeks. Staring at them a bit too. For such a fine handsome vegetable, the leek is something of a quiet, unassuming sort, one more likely to play second fiddle than take a solo. That’s how it goes in Paradiso, at least, where the leek is a bedrock of our winter cooking while taking the only the occasional spin in the spotlight. Hence the two recipes, or one and a half.
The first one, the half, as it were, is probably the most common way we cook leeks; you’ll find variations on it in all of the cookbooks and you may or may not know that it is the basis of loads of our gratins and pancake fillings. I’ve demo-ed it a hundred times but was surprised to find that there has been no recipe of the month featuring it. It goes like this:
Chop a pile of leeks into medium dice, put a lump of butter on top and drop the pile head first into a pot that has been heating for a while over high heat; cook and stir for ten minutes, then add some chopped garlic, fresh thyme, dijon mustard and a generous splash of white wine; leave the pot on high heat for five minutes, add a splash of cream and cook five minutes more until the leeks are tender and the liquid is all more or less evaporated.
The resulting pile of sweet, mustardy leeks can be mixed with roasted squash or roots, spinach and cheese, potatoes, aubergines, lentils…not all at the same time, thanks…and used to fill crepes, pancakes, tarts, pastries or to make the base of a gratin. While it is the other ingredients that often take the plaudits in such dishes, without the leek the thing wouldn’t even stand up on stage.
The second recipe is a tad more detailed: it also leaves the leek in a recogniseable state and gives it a higher billing on the plate. Still, it is not so regimental either – the basic technique of braising chunks of leek is open to endless flavourings and finishings. It makes a rich side dish and a very strong part of a tapas selection, and it turns into an elegant starter with very little fuss.
large handful of pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3 medium leeks
thinly grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons finely grated ginger
½ glass white wine
juice of ½ lemon
fried haloumi, to finish
Heat a heavy pan over low heat, add the pepitas and toast them, stirring occasionally, for 5-7 minutes until lightly browned. Add a splash of soy sauce and remove the pan from the heat. After a minute or so, transfer the pepitas to a tray and leave in a warm place to crisp.
Preheat the oven to 180c/360f.
Trim the outside leaves and the tops from the leeks, and cut the rest into diagonal slices about 1cm thick. Wash them gently if necessary.
Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy oven-proof pan over medium heat. Place the leeks in the pan. Scatter over the lemon zest and ginger, then pour in the wine and a tablespoon of water. Bring to a boil, cover the pan and transfer to the oven. Braise for 20-25 minutes until the leeks are tender.
Lift the leeks from the remaining liquid with a spoon and transfer them to a serving plates. Whisk the lemon juice and some salt into the liquid, and spoon some of it over the leeks. Scatter some pepitas on top.
To turn this into a more elaborate starter, serve with some fried haloumi on top and a little harissa or chilli sauce on the side.