Leeks, one of my favorite cold weather vegetables, are the stars of many slow-cooked comfort dishes. They are however often used in combination with other vegetables, where they silkiness and mellowness have a supporting role: think soup, especially leek & potatoes. But they are superb as the main vegetable as in leek tart or as in this recipe, slow-cooked with plenty of butter and finished with fresh tangy goat cheese.
Do choose healthy thick specimens with the longest possible shaft – the white part. I can’t help laughing when I see thick leeks in the store – with a puny 2 or 3 inches of white and all leaves!!!! Good leeks have long sturdy stems: that’s the part you want. Sure the blue/green leaves are perfectly edibles: treat them like any strong-flavored greens – myself, I like to cook them with kale. But for this recipe (as with most recipes you are likely to find), the shaft, not the leaves, are what you want. That’s where the mellowness is. If you grow leeks, look for varieties which naturally grow a long stem. Also hill them up throughout summer and fall
Leeks are in season now until late winter. They are biennial, meaning they go to flower (and produce seeds) their second year. So, in early spring, the leeks planted the prior year, start to develop a woody core – they are making a flowering stem. And it is woody – fine to flavor soup, but way too hard to chew. Beware of March leeks!
The spread can be prepared several days ahead and gently reheated before putting it on freshly toasted crostini. In winter, I like using lard to crisp the crostini – lard rendered from the fat of a pastured pig, not hydrogenated. Feel free to use extra-virgin olive oil if you prefer.
Leeks & Goat Cheese Crostini
4 cups leeks, white, light and medium green parts only
4 tablespoons butter, preferably unsalted
Salt to taste
4 ounces fresh goat cheese
Pepper to taste
Sliced bread, either baguette or a plain country loaf
2 tablespoons lard (as needed)
Slice the leeks in rings. Dump them in a large bowl of cold water and swish them around to clean them well as there might be soil caught inside the stem. Lift the leeks from the water into a colander to drain so any debris remains in the water.
Heat a heavy-bottom skillet over medium heat, melt butter. Add leeks. Sauté for 2 minutes, stirring, salt to taste, then lower heat and “sweat” the leeks until they are very soft, from 40 minutes to an hour. Make sure they do not caramelize – no browning!!!! Stir often to prevent sticking and browning; add a little butter or water if needed. The leeks should become meltingly tender.
Add the goat cheese and mix well. Cook another 10 minutes on very low heat. Pepper generously to taste.
Meanwhile, prepare the crostini. Melt the lard in a small sauce pan. Brush both sides of the bread slices, and broil it on high, one or two minutes each side until golden.
Pile a little of the leek mixture on each bread slice. Serve immediately. The dish is best when still warm.
A version of this recipe was initially published in the Fall 2012 issue of FoodShed magazine.