Thursday, October 24, 2013

Taking a Leek







Have you ever been tempted, while in the vegetable aisle in the grocery store, to ask your shopping companion if they could please go take a leek?

I have. 

And once I did, you'd be surprised at how many other people later approached me, telling me they’d like to take one too.

Leeks.  So heartwarming and yet, so under appreciated.  They're like the giant, geeky cousins of the much more diminutive scallions (a.k.a, green onions).  And ironically, although you’d think otherwise, it's the smaller scallion that really packs the bigger and bolder flavor punch.

Perhaps leeks are overlooked since they’re also pricey and only prized for their bottom white portions, while their tough leafy ends (which often comprise about half of the vegetable) generally get tossed, unless you save them as an addition to homemade stocks.

Another downside for poor leeks is that they’re almost always dirty and require thorough cleaning before they can be used.  But you can't really blame the leeks for that, since it isn't their fault. They have nothing to do with it.

It’s the farmer who’s the one intentionally piling the soil up all around them, and all that piling just pushes the dirt deeper and deeper inside the layers of the leek.  So why would the farmer do that other than to cause us extra aggravation whenever we'd like to enjoy a leek?  In an attempt to hide as much of the plant as possible from the sun, because what's hidden from the sun remains white and much more tender.  So it really does appear that this cleanliness, godliness thing may not be all it's cracked up to be.  But we'll deal with that later.

So it looks like leeks haven’t had it easy, but who has?  However, their upside (and they do have an upside), is their flavor.  And a what flavor it is. 

Mellow, complex and more subtle than many other members of the onion family.  And when cooked, well, that's where the real action begins.  Silky, tender and smooth.  Who wouldn’t like that?

But what I especially like about leeks is their flexibility, since they happen to form the backbone of a soup that’s perfect for transitions.  And what do I mean by transitions?  Well, when it's hot, you serve it cold.  And when it's cold, you serve it hot. 

Now, the recipe I'm going to share here with you today, can be served cool or at room temperature.  Not too hot and not too cold.  Just like the story of The Three Little Bears... but without the bears.  However, here's where it gets a little tricky.

When served cold (minus my dill and cucumber additions), it's known as Vichyssoise, which has nothing to do with the town of Vichy in France.  Except remotely.  Louis Diat, a French chef at New York City's Ritz Carlton is credited with the creation of Vichyssoise in the summer of 1917.  Lacking air conditioning (oh, we’re so spoiled today), he sought to create something soothing and cooling for his upscale customers.  And if you've ever been to New York City during a long, hot summer, you'll know exactly what inspired him.  

Although others may have added cold cream to the potato and leek soup he recalled from his childhood, he was the first to intentionally serve it cold, calling it "Crème Vichyssoise Glacée" (Chilled Cream Vichyssoise), after Vichy, a spa town located near his birthplace in France.

So there you have it.  But whatever you want to call it, it's simply delicious.  Soothing in summer, and when served hot, comforting in winter.  So be adventurous and don't be put off by vegetables with large appearances or appendages. Because if you do, you may be missing out on one of life's most simple pleasures.  Savoring flavors.


POTATO LEEK SOUP WITH DILL AND CUCUMBER

Serves 5 – 6

4 leeks (about 3 pounds)
6 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups whole milk
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup heavy cream*
dried dill
cucumber (thinly sliced disks)
salt and pepper to taste

Trim the leeks, cutting away all but the white and very light green portions.  Slice lengthwise through the white portion, then rinse the leeks well under cool running water, spreading the layers apart to remove any dirt or sand.  Once clean, slice thinly crosswise and set aside.

Add the butter to a large pot over medium low heat.
Once melted, add the leeks, mixing gently to coat with the butter.
Cook about five minutes until soft (do not allow them to brown).

Add the peeled and diced potatoes, milk and chicken broth.
Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer.
Continue cooking until potatoes are tender (about 20 minutes).

Remove pot from heat and purée with a stick blender or run in batches through a food mill.
Add cream, then return soup to heat and simmer for 5 minutes on low.

Cool to room temperature and serve (if chilled soup is preferred, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold).  Add salt and pepper to taste, if desired, immediately before serving.

To serve in a decorative glass, create alternating layers of soup and dried dill.
Garnish with several disks of thinly sliced cucumber, followed by a light sprinkling of dill.

* For a lighter version, substitute half-and-half for the heavy cream.

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