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In Season: Leeks


With their fanlike tops and ombré coloring, leeks might be the most elegant members of the allium family (other, more prosaic relatives include onions, garlic, chives, shallots, and scallions). They’re interchangeable with onions in most preparations, but they also star in such dishes as cock-a-leekie soup, vichyssoise, leeks vinaigrette, and more.

When choosing leeks, look for those with tightly packed greens; the tops shouldn’t be droopy or pocked. Trim the tougher dark green parts and save them for stock—just freeze them until you’re ready to use.

Like garden lettuce and cilantro, leeks are notoriously gritty. Extra-dirty alliums should be rinsed whole first. If your recipe calls for chopped leeks, you can cut as directed, then submerge them in water. Otherwise, halve them vertically, keeping the white root end intact. Then swish them in a water bath, rinse, and repeat until the water is clear.

Mild and sweet, leeks play nicely with a wide range of cheeses—you’ll see them paired with fresh goat cheese in quiches and tarts throughout the spring. In the focaccia recipe below, we cooked leeks and fennel with anise seeds to make a sweet, earthy topping for the olive oil–rich bread. A finishing sprinkle of parmesan gives the flavors a savory edge and adds crispiness.

Focaccia with Leeks, Fennel, and Parmesan
The dough for this focaccia is adapted from a foolproof recipe in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.
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Ingredients
  1. 1 package (2¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast
  2. 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons lukewarm water
  3. 9 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  4. 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning
  5. 5½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  6. 1 large leek, trimmed and halved vertically, then cut into ½-inch slices (about 2 cups)
  7. ½ bulb fennel, cored and cut into ½-inch-thick slices (about 1 cup)
  8. 1 teaspoon anise seeds
  9. 1 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
  10. Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Instructions
  1. Dissolve yeast in a small bowl with ½ cup water and let sit for about 10 minutes.
  2. Transfer yeast mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon salt, ¾ cup water, and 2½ cups flour. Mix the dough on medium-low speed until it’s soft and somewhat pliable, 2 to 3 minutes. It will still be sticky. Add 2½ cups flour and ¾ cup water and mix on medium-low for about 7 minutes, until dough is fully pliable. If the dough is still a little sticky, add remaining flour as needed—but check the consistency of the dough as you go to determine how much.
  3. Turn dough out onto a floured surface. Knead it a few times and form into a round. Pour 2 tablespoons olive oil onto an 18-by-13-inch baking sheet and place dough in the center. Cover with a damp towel, and place in a warm spot to rise for 1½ to 2 hours.
  4. While dough is rising, pour 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. When oil is warm, add leeks and fennel and cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes. Add anise seeds and a pinch of salt, and cook for 2 minutes more. Remove from heat and set aside.
  5. When dough has finished rising, remove the towel and stretch dough out to cover the entire surface of the pan. It should be about a ¼-inch thick. Cover with the damp towel, and let rise for 45 more minutes.
  6. Heat oven to 450°F and set a rack in the center. Use the tips of your fingers to poke dough all over, covering the surface with little hollows. Whisk together 3 tablespoons oil, 2 tablespoons water, and 1 teaspoon salt, and pour it over the top of the focaccia dough. Spread leek and fennel mixture over the top, and sprinkle with parmesan.
  7. Bake for 15 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 8 to 10 minutes. The leeks on top should be browned at the edges, and the bread should be the color of light caramel. Serve warm or at room temperature. Leftover focaccia can be frozen for up to 1 month.
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Feature Photo Credit: Tiger Images | Shutterstock

Leigh Belanger

Leigh Belanger is culture's former food editor. She's been a food writer, editor, and project manager for over a decade— serving as program director for Chefs Collaborative and contributing to local newspapers and magazines. Her first book, The Boston Homegrown Cookbook, was published in 2012. She lives and cooks in Boston with her family.