For years, right after celebrating the New Year, my sister Janet and I would have the pipes drained, take down the bird feeders and wind chimes, clear out the fridge and freezer, and close our little house in the country for three months. We’d return to our apartments in the city to wait out the coldest months of the year. Now we spend our winters in Oaxaca, Mexico, but we still go through the same rigamarole before leaving.
We return sometime in late April. While lugging our suitcases up the steps of the front porch, I always steal a peek at the garden that abuts the house. Like magic, the true harbingers of spring are revealed. Clumps of bright green chives have sprouted, welcoming me home.
Chives are the smallest and most delicate members of the onion family. Their faintly oniony flavor and vibrant color make them a useful, tasty, and versatile herb. They are most often used as a garnish along with the edible pom-pom-like pinkish-purple flowers that eventually bloom atop their stems. Chives can also make an appearance as a bonafide ingredient in egg salad, butter-based sauces, biscuits, savory scones and cheese omelets. One year I steeped the flowers in white wine vinegar and produced a sprightly ingredient, along with extra-virgin olive oil, for salad dressings.
Next up on the onion food chain is something I always have in the crisper drawer of my refrigerator, and that is a bunch of scallions. Scallions are commonly referred to as green onions and are a type of young onions with a long, thin white base that has not yet developed a bulb, and long straight green stalks that look like giant chives. Scallions are milder than mature onions but have a stronger flavor than chives. Both the white base and the lightest green part of the stalk are eaten. As with their diminutive relative, chives, they are most often used fresh and raw in salads, mixed into cream cheese, or placed on a crudité platter. In the Asian kitchen the ever-so-slightly crunchy scallion is often thinly sliced and showered over soups and entrees as a garnish just prior to being served.
Finally, we move on to the majestic, most refined, and underrated member of the garlic and onion families. The noble leek. Leeks are prehistoric plants. Serious cultivation of this oversized scallion in the Mediterranean world led to a long-standing Roman predilection for leeks.
I worked in an Italian-owned pasta shop for ten years. Besides selling fresh and dried pasta we had a kitchen in the back overseen by the Venetian matriarch of the family. Senora spent her days preparing a multitude of dishes for take-out. I had never seen leeks used in so many dishes. “The southern Italians use onions, while the northerners like myself prefer the more delicate and subtle leek,” she once explained to me with more than a touch of arrogance.
Words like sweet, silky and velvety describe how leeks react to various cooking methods. They lend themselves to braising and baking, both of which render them meltingly tender. They are great sauteed with other vegetables as a base for a hearty soup and are a terrific component in egg dishes such as omelets, French tarts, Italian frittatas, and Spanish tortillas (a thick omelet cut into wedges and served at tapas bars).
Because of the way leeks grow, dirt and grit get trapped between the tight leaves. Split them lengthwise and rinse well under cool running water, then pat dry. The white and pale green shank of the vegetable is edible; the upper darker-green leaves are tough and better off thrown onto the compost heap.
Leeks are most often used in combination with other ingredients in the preparation of a dish rather than as a vegetable in their own right. I have a mammoth collection of cookbooks and did some investigating to find recipes that showcase leeks. In “The Foods of the Greek Islands,” by Aglaia Kremezi, I was intrigued by such recipes as leek patties and coiled spinach, leek, and feta pie made with filo pastry. In “Verdura (Vegetables Italian Style),” by Viana La Place, I found a leek and spinach frittata and a rich-sounding, impressive dish of leeks in pink mascarpone sauce. The “Gourmet Cookbook,” edited by Ruth Reichl, offered creamed leeks, poached leeks with warm vinaigrette, and grilled leeks with Spanish romesco sauce. The French “Bistro Cooking,” by Patricia Wells, had a recipe for leek tart. Finally, in “Contorni (Authentic Italian Side Dishes for all Seasons),” by Susan Simon, I found a mouthwatering recipe for gratinéed leeks. Any dish with a creamy, cheesy sauce and browned, golden crust wins me over immediately. This dish is perfect with crisp-skinned roasted chicken, pork chops, or a nice, juicy steak. A dressed green salad nicely cuts the richness of the leeks. And the garnish of snipped chives brings us back to the start of spring.
Carefully cut the leeks in half lengthwise, leaving the inner layers intact. If gritty, rinse thoroughly to remove any trace of dirt.
Fill a large pot or Dutch oven with 3 inches of salted water and bring it to a boil. Lower the heat so that the water is simmering and add the leeks. Poach, partially covered, for 6 minutes. Use tongs to remove them carefully from the water so they stay as intact as possible. Let them drain on paper towels. Slice the leeks in half width-wise.
Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a small skillet and when hot, add the fresh bread crumbs. Sauté about 2 minutes until pale gold. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Make the béchamel sauce by melting the butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring continuously, for 2 minutes. Pour in the half & half or milk while stirring continuously, then raise heat to medium. When mixture thickens to the consistency of pancake batter, add the nutmeg, salt, pepper, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Remove from heat and stir a few seconds until cheese is melted.
Grease an 8 x 8” gratin dish with the final teaspoon of oil. Pour half the béchamel sauce into the bottom of the gratin. Spread evenly with the back of a spoon. Line the dish with the stacks of leeks until the bottom of the gratin is covered with leeks. Pour the remainder of the béchamel sauce over the leeks and spread with the back of a spoon to completely cover leeks. Sprinkle with Gruyère cheese and then the breadcrumbs. Bake until bubbly, 20 to 25 minutes.
Turn on the broiler and broil the top of the gratin for 2 to 3 minutes until the top is deeply golden. Remove from the oven and garnish with the snipped chives. Serve.
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