Leeks are a member of the garlic and onion family, believed to have originated in central Asia.Grown by the Greeks and Romans, Emperor Nero is said to have eaten leek soup every day to make his voice sonorous for delivering orations (Clifford Wright, Mediterranean Vegetables). Cultivated for their white stem, leeks are usually found in the market with their roots and green leaves attached.
In Italy, leeks are common in the northern regions we typically visit on our cycling tours and ski tours. Here in regions such as Trentino-Alto Adige, mature leeks can be left in the ground and are therefore available throughout the colder months.The white stems and roots are under the soil, and as they grow soil can easily embed itself between the layers of the stem, so they do need to be cleaned thoroughly before using.
To clean, trim the roots from the leeks. Cut off almost all of the green leaves and remove the outer layer. Cut the stalk in half and cut into 1/4 inch slices. Place the leek slices into a large bowl of water and swish thoroughly to remove any dirt embedded between the layers. Let the slices sit for a minute to allow the dirt to settle to the bottom, then scoop out the slices with a strainer.
You can use leeks in many of the same ways you would use an onion, but the result will be a bit more mellow, delicate, and earthy. In Trentino-Alto Adige, leeks find their way into soups, leek risottos, and the traditional dumpling canederli or knodel. This recipe for a leek gratin was adapted from a book I picked up along the Sudtirol Weinstrasse (Wine Road), Cucina Tradizionale del Sudtirolo, and then modified to suit my cooking style ( = easier with fewer dirty pots.) It calls for beef stock, but a vegetarian version is easy enough, simply use a second cup of milk in place of the stock.
Enjoy with a roasted chicken and a glass of Terlaner white from Alto Adige.
Gratin di Porri
1 cup milk
1 cup beef broth (replace with a second cup of milk for vegetarian version)
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup butter, plus more for coating gratin dish
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup flour
3/4 cup grana padano cheese, grated
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
½ cup breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Place the milk, beef stock and bay leaves in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Turn off heat and allow to sit while you clean the leeks.
Trim the roots from the leeks. Cut off almost all of the green leaves and remove the outer layer. Cut the stalk in half and cut into 1/4 inch slices. Place the leek slices into a large bowl of water and swish thoroughly to remove any dirt embedded between the layers. Let the slices sit for a minute to allow the dirt to settle to the bottom, then scoop out the slices with a strainer.
Melt the butter and the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the leeks and saute until softened, about 7 minutes. Stir in the flour, and stir for to combine. Remove the bay leaves and slowly add in the milk and stock mixture about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring each time until it has thickened. Add 1/2 cup of the grated cheese and stir to combine. Season to taste with the salt and pepper.
Coat the interior of the gratin dish with butter, and sprinkle lightly with some of the breadcrumbs. Spoon the leeks into the gratin dish, and top with the remaining grated cheese and breadcrumbs. Place in oven and bake until bubbly and golden brown, about 40 minutes.