Friday, 12 April 2013

Leeks with Gruyere Cheese - Perfect Combinations

Leeks au Gratin

I know we're all waiting impatiently for the asparagus to arrive but clearly, given this long winter, it's going to be late this year.  There are a few English spears around and if you want something tasteless and expensive then you can have it.  Personally I'll bide my time and wait another 3-4 weeks.  In the meantime, I've been making the most of leeks. The French refer to leeks as "poor man's asparagus" (a term we use in the UK for the coastal Samphire), and value them at least as much as we do.  

A member of the allium family, leeks add a more subtle, less pungent note to dishes than onions or garlic.  They have an  affinity with butter, cheese, potatoes and bacon.  They also go with fish and are used in dishes such as bouillabaisse.  Sliced thinly and deep fried they make a lovely crispy foil for soft scallops.  I like them finely sliced with mussels instead of shallots in Moules Marini√®re.  Leeks can also carry off starring roles.  Their sweet, slippery softness is perfect in soups such as Vichyssoise; a dish of Leeks Gribiche makes a perfect, healthy lunch; match leeks with pastry and cream for a less virtuous but wholly delicious Flamiche.  

Growing slowly through the winter, leeks are smaller than normal this year but have been tasting fantastic over the past couple of weeks.  Soon after the warm weather eventually arrives they will start to develop a hard core and their time will be over.  Many recipes direct you to discard the green tops.  I urge you to use all but the tough topmost parts, unless it would spoil the recipe.  Green is good and you can always add it to soups or stocks.

Leeks au Gratin
straight from the oven
Today, with skies leaden and Spring a promise away, I offer you a simple dish of Leeks in a sauce Mornay (a simple Bechamel with added cheese).  The French would call it Leeks au Gratin and as we adopted their sauces Bechamel and Mornay, so shall I.  A buttered dish of leeks topped with a cheese sauce and baked until it's nicely browned and the smell of molten gruyere cheese drives you to distraction.  I could have topped the dish with breadcrumbs but personally I prefer to mop up the sauce with crusty bread.  If I want to make the dish more substantial I wrap the leeks in slices of cooked ham. 

This is a great bad-weather dish.  Next week, when we're on a promise of warmer weather, I will bake my leeks with stock and cream for a lighter dish.  Whilst the leeks are as good as this I really can wait for that asparagus.

Leeks au Gratin
(serves 4)

8 medium or 12 small leeks
50g unsalted butter + a little extra to butter the baking dish
50g plain flour
500ml milk
150g grated gruyere
Salt & pepper
Pinch or two of cayenne pepper

Preheat oven to 200C (Fan 180C).
Lightly trim the leeks, top and bottom and remove one outer layer.  Slice half way down from the top and wash thoroughly.  Drop the leeks into boiling salted water for 3-4 minutes, drain and lay them in a shallow, buttered oven-proof dish.
Melt the butter in a small heavy-based pan.  On a gentle heat, add the flour and stir for 3 minutes to cook off.  Pour in the milk all at once and whisk well.  Cook over a low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon until the sauce has thickened - about 7-8 minutes.  Take off the heat and add half the grated gruyere.  Taste and season with salt and pepper.  Pour the sauce over the leeks and scatter the remaining gruyere and the cayenne pepper on top.  Bake for 25-30 minutes until bubbling and lightly browned.

When I haven't been able to harvest from my allotment, I've been buying organic leeks in London from Kent grower Chegworth Valley Farm.  Although better known for their excellent fruit juices, their fruit and vegetables are very good quality and value.