I am completely nuts for leeks. I think I always have been, even when I thought I hated anything that had to do with onions. As a kid, I always thought that green onions were the epitome of oniony-evil, so I thought that over sized, green-onion-on-steroids leeks must be positively satanic.
But I know better now and have for many years. And whenever I see leeks, I have the same reaction as when I see a super cute Boston Terrier puppy just begging for a home. ‘Natch, I always turn over the ducats. And although puppies, especially Bostons, can emit odors that come close to leeks, leeks are so much more…um, edible and delicious.
Leeks are flexible enough to throw the leek tops, the sometimes super-fiberous (some say inedible) green parts, into a cast iron pot filled with seared short ribs and red wine to braise for an hour or four to add extra onion flavor…but it’s the white parts of the leek that get me off – sweet and savory and subtle. Sliced thinly and sauteed, they’re one of the most flexible preps you can have, as they go with beef, pork, chicken. They are especially good with one of my other favorites, mashed potatoes. Tossing a handful of meltingly soft leek bits along with butter and cream to a bowl of mash really kicks ass over roasted garlic ‘tatos any day in my book. (Don’t fret, roasted garlic potatoes are myclose second favorite…).
But the thing I like to do the best with leeks is to make a savory tart using leeks and creme fraiche on top of puff pastry. And the whole thing is so dead simple, that you’re already kicking yourself for not getting out to the store pronto to score the ingredients to make yourself one.
My friend Tom Dowdy originally taught me how to make this and the recipe could have come from his days at the CIA or from one of his many cookbooks, but he always said that as long as you had the three basic ingredients, leeks, creme fraiche and puff pastry, you’re good to go. Sound easy? Read on…
leek and roasted red pepper tart (photo by wm. christman)
First the puff pastry. I use store-bought because I suck at making it fresh and when I want leek tart it’s usually on the quick-and-dirty (like I want leek tart in my mouth NOW) so I feel that short-cutting it with frozen is ok here. Of course, fresh puff pastry is better but…frozen-store-bought will do. Really. The only trick is to let it thaw completely (if you buy it frozen) and resist any urge to roll it out AT ALL.
Then there’s the leeks. There is a vendor at the Mountain View Farmer’s Market that sells the best leeks in the Bay Area. I’m sure that there is a farm name associated with them but I always forget to ask because I go into a trance when I see their leeks. They are HUGE, inexpensive and best of all, full of white leek flesh – 2/3 of the leek is white which is amazing if you compare them to the ones they sell at Whole Foods. In season, they are two for a two bucks (two DOLLARS!) and you’ll pay slightly more toward the end of the season. Since they are the diameter of a small, chubby child’s arm, one will give you enough leek tart filling for one tart. Use the second one for another tart, or saute some for the aforementioned mashed potatoes. (If you can’t get to the Farmer’s Market, your local mega-mart will probably have some small-to-moderate sized leeks…just look for leeks that have as much white leek flesh as possible. Two or three of this size will make enough filling for one leek tart…)
– Start by setting the dough out to thaw. Then heat your oven to 400°. Cut the leek just where the green part starts (you’ll use all of the white parts), strip off the first layer of leek flesh to prep it for washing. (You can save the green tops for making stock, and other things…use the power of Google for suggestions.)
Cleaning leeks is a bit of a pain, so leave the root end on for a moment while you split them lengthwise. Run cold water through the layers to rinse out any dirt or sand that has collected there. Shake then pat them dry. The root ends will keep the leek layers together and will make it easy to slice them thinly into half rounds. Discard the root ends when you’re finished.
– Set a saute pan over medium heat and melt a small spoon of butter in it until it barely sizzles. Toss in the sliced leeks and saute them until they become soft. You don’t want to brown them AT ALL so keep them moving and watch the heat. They’ll lose close to half their volume when they’re done – take a small pinch of them and eat them to judge their softness.
If the cooked leeks are tender, set the pan off the heat for about 5-10 minutes. Then, stir in a few tablespoonfuls of the creme fraiche. Now don’t panic…this resulting mixture will look like something has gone seriously, train-wreck wrong. Just keep stirring and the whole thing will start to set up as the pan cools. You’re looking for a creamy texture so carefully add more creme fraiche to get it there. Season and taste until you have a sweet-ish, pleasantly savory-oniony flavor. Then scrape the leeks into a bowl and put them into the fridge.
leek, cheshire cheese and thyme tart (photo by wm. christman)
Most of the difficult part is done. And chances are pretty good that your puff pasty is not quite thawed yet. Check it, unfold it some more (if you need to), and let it get back to it’s natural state. While you’re waiting, pour yourself a glass of wine or other frosty beverage and consider crisping some lardon (julienned bacon) or foraging through your fridge for other stuff to put on top of your leek tart. Good candidates are roasted peppers, stray cheeses, fresh thyme, leftover bits ‘n pieces of vegetable and other delicious fridge detritus. I have even used little dabs of fig preserve for that savory-sweet goodness.
– When you’re ready get your tart on, cut the puff pastry into an attractive shape (circular for the purists, something jagged for the modern set or edges crimped/pulled for that “rustic” look…). Slap the dough onto a baking sheet lubed up with a small amount of butter so it won’t stick (even fully thawed, frozen dough retains just enough water for sticking to be problematic). Then spoon your chilled leek mixture onto the top of the dough. Puff pastry will puff up where ingredients aren’t so leave a rim of untouched dough of about an inch from the edge. Scatter whichever other topping you chose (I like lardon and/or red pepper) over the top of the leek mixture. Pinch a bit of salt and/or black pepper over the top if you desire. However, the leek creme by itself is delicious so don’t feel pressured to add anything else.
Bake until “done”. Depending on your oven, this is 30-40 minutes but do check it occasionally. Looking at the doneness of the pastry rim will be your clear clue…if it’s puffed up, crisp and GBD (golden brown and delicious), then it’s done. Let it cool on it’s pan for 10-15 minutes before you (carefully) move it onto a cooling rack. Slice and devour, still warm or at room temperature.
Leek season is now…from now to late-summer, and there will be leeks on my kitchen counter. They’re truly one of my kitchen essentials.