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A&E >  Food

How to clean leeks and do more with the versatile allium

Leeks can be grilled, roasted, braised, fried or thinly sliced and eaten raw in salads.  (Scott Suchman/For the Washington Post)
Leeks can be grilled, roasted, braised, fried or thinly sliced and eaten raw in salads. (Scott Suchman/For the Washington Post)
By Aaron Hutcherson Washington Post

Leeks are a splendid, versatile vegetable, but I sometimes forget about them. Instead, I turn my attention to other alliums, such as onions, garlic, shallots, scallions or chives, which are better at grabbing my attention in the kitchen.

If alliums were high school stereotypes, yellow onions would be voted as prom royalty or class president, as they are uber popular and can generally get along with anyone. Red onions are the assertive class clowns who are going to make sure their presence is known. Garlic is the smaller kid with an outsize personality who everyone wants to hang out with (but have a tipping point at which they’re just too much).

Shallots are the cool kids with an air of exclusivity and elitism, often found hanging out in pairs. Chives and scallions are routinely tardy, waiting to show up until the very end but leaving a lasting impression. And then there are leeks: the wallflowers that people sometimes overlook but who will be your best friends and down for anything once you get to know them.

Unlike the high school classmates who you never see again after graduation, it’s not too late to get acquainted with leeks. While, generally speaking, most alliums are interchangeable in a pinch, leeks are among the mildest in terms of that signature sulfuric flavor and have an almost herbaceous sweetness that sets them apart. Their more subtle flavor gives them an enviable versatility – they can serve in a supporting role or step into the spotlight to be the star of a dish.

Leeks are available year-round, but they’re commonly associated with spring when small, young ones first become available – which you should snag if you see them. Look for firm leeks, which are typically sold in bunches of three, preferably with the roots attached to prolong their life span. They can grow to be quite lengthy, but only the white and pale green part of the leaves are used in recipes. The dark green parts are best suited for stock.

This results in a lower yield compared to other alliums, which, combined with a generally higher price, means that it’s a good idea to look for leeks with the most white and light green to maximize the bang for your buck. Leeks should be stored whole, unwashed and loosely wrapped in a damp towel or plastic wrap in the refrigerator, where they will keep for about a week.

Before cooking, it’s important to thoroughly wash leeks as dirt and grit often gets trapped between the layers of leaves as they grow. My preferred method is to cut off the dark green parts of the leaves, trim the roots (if present) while keeping the base intact so the leaves are still attached, cut in half vertically through the base, and place under running water, separating the leaves with your fingers to ensure that water can get in between.

Then, just shake them dry and pat with a paper or clean dish towel, if necessary, before slicing or dicing as the recipe requires. Another option comes from former deputy food editor Bonnie S. Benwick by way of my colleague Becky Krystal: Prepare them as above except instead of just trimming the root, you cut the bottom of the leek off so the leaves are no longer connected.

Then, “Stand them up in a container of ice water and let them soak for 15 minutes. You should see the grit drop to the bottom,” Krystal wrote. One benefit of this method is that it might use less water if you’re cleaning a bunch of leeks; the downside is that you’re left with an additional dish to clean.

Lastly, you might see some people recommend slicing the leeks first before placing them in a colander under running water or letting them soak as above. While this certainly is an option, beware that you could end up with dirt all over your cutting board, and it would take more effort to dry them with more surface area for the water to cling to.

Once nice and squeaky clean, your leeks are ready to be grilled, roasted, braised, fried or thinly sliced and eaten raw in salads. The world is your oyster – or in this case, your leek.

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