Sometimes a vegetable perfectly matches its true season, bestowed upon us from plant or earth like a metaphor. After the solemn cold of winter, when farmers market stalls seem to rescind their promises, leeks emerge from the earth, dirt-clad and single-minded, as vertical as hope.
Without the raw force of an onion or the hollow delicacy of a bouquet of chives, leeks rely on subtlety and fortitude. A leek is by its nature a patient vegetable. Slow-growing underground, able to bide its time once out of it, a leek can also hold up to myriad cooking techniques, as if the very patience that held it through the slow winter has become alloyed in the leek’s own concentric rings.
Serene, subtly aromatic, almost cool to the touch, a leek can be a revelation in the kitchen, with a wealth of nuanced flavor that belies its humble appearance.
Yet the leek, more than most other vegetables, clings to the earth that engenders it, as if reluctant to be fully separated from its origins. Cut through a leek, particularly a mature one, and you’ll find, shot through the ringed layers, a residue of the dirt and sand in which it grew, like the footprint of a creation myth.
Leeks are often purposely grown in little hills, individual archeological tells that are mounded by farmers to increase the proportion of white stem to green leaf. The dirt or sand (leeks are often grown in particularly sandy dirt or even outright sand) becomes embedded within the layers of the leek as it grows. This accounts for the need to soak leeks thoroughly before you cook them.
If the stubborn, earth-shot quality of a leek is part of its appeal -- a quiet reminder of the necessary proximity of food to farm -- the leek’s leaves also have a story to tell. V-shaped, they rise out of the roots like folded sheaths, growing darker the farther they get from home -- a tangible buffer between pale roots and the sunlit world.
Absolved from the earth, washed clean and shorn from the blue-green tresses of its leaves, a leek is ready for transformation.
Cooking a leek is not like taming an onion or preserving the delicate ephemerality of a handful of fresh herbs or greens. It’s about capturing the essence of a vegetable that contains equal parts resilience and grace.
A bowlful of steamed mussels becomes extraordinary when married with leeks. Cut in thin strips and sauteed in butter, the leeks give structure to the winey broth as well as a hint of color -- the leeks on the small black mussels are like thick brush strokes of lime green on obsidian. The dish distills a leek’s brightest nature.
Blanched and minced into a thick pate shot through with fresh ginger, vinegar and chives, leeks showcase their cooler qualities, becoming smoother and more refined. Or seared and then braised in the oven in broth laced with thyme and shallots, they demonstrate profound earthiness.
After a good braise, a leek develops warm, caramel notes, becoming buttery and rich and aromatic. Its flavor doesn’t dissipate; it reaches its full potential. Like an early spring day that can shift in an hour from pallid reticence to honeyed vigor, a leek is not mercurial but capable of sudden moments of revelation.
It’s no wonder Shakespeare chose the leek as a symbol of his emerging young soldier-king in “Henry V.” We’re told that as a Welshman, Henry wears the leek for a “memorable honour” on St. Davy’s Day -- which is, fittingly for a late winter vegetable, the first of March.
Following Henry’s improbable underdog victory over the French at Agincourt, Shakespeare pauses not to give the king another ceremonious soliloquy, but to allow the modest Welsh Capt. Fluellen to give a speech about leeks.