June 1, 2014: They are tall, contain varying shades of green and white, and can be a bit awkward to bag. But that’s the seductive lure of the leek. Unlike carrots, which are orange and common and as a result are often easier to toss into your shopping cart, you can’t find leeks everywhere.
What is a leek? A cousin to the odorous and more pronounced onions and garlic, it’s essentially a whisper in the produce aisle. Relatively unused in these parts, this vegetable is rarely hawked from some corner farm stand. In fact, not many people even know what a leek is, much less where it comes from. Nor might they care. But with the right chef, a leek — or two or three or four — can become a delicacy.
Nuno Mendes is a Portuguese chef whose ambition and training have garnered him the spotlight in England and beyond. According to www.greatbritishchefs.com, his preparations often rely on unusual, cosmopolitan ingredients like charred leek hearts and sautéed watermelon. His approaches are unique, clever, artistic and, most of the time, successful — even when it seems like they shouldn’t be at all.
“Burning stuff is OK,” Mendes told the British newspaper The Independent in February 2011. “Obviously it sounds wrong, but we char lots of things in the restaurant: for example, we do a dish with charred leek emulsion where we take leek ash and make a mayonnaise out of it. You have to lose your preconceptions about ingredients and the way they should be used: cook with an open mind and the possibilities become endless.”
It’s not wrong, in other words, to bend or even break the rules of the kitchen — as long as it’s worth it in the end. And Mendes is a man who certainly knows how to wield his knives.
So what’s the best wine to pair with leeks? According to What To Drink With What You Eat, a highly informative book by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, chardonnay is your best bet, though Muscadet and Riesling are also contenders. Yet these are general guidelines; as with anything, the quality, preparation and seasoning of the ingredients matter.
Mature leeks have a mild onion flavor and are usually plucked from the ground later in the year. Firmly rooted in their trenches, these cylinders of bundled leaf sheaths are long and resilient; it takes a sharp, determined knife to slice through their thick layers. Shorter, immature leeks are flimsier and easier to pull. The youngest leeks also tend to be the dirtiest of all. I think it’s because they are closer to the ground. You’ll find less dirt on the more fully-grown leeks. Either way, both need to be cleaned especially well. Cooking and then digesting dirty leeks is never a good idea; besides the obvious health safety issues, you wouldn’t want to inadvertently soil the other portions of the meal.
Chardonnays are a good general pairing with leeks because they are made in a variety of styles that can be angled to fit the recipe being used. This wine varietal is typically described as acidic, creamy, silky or rich; its more pronounced flavors may remind you of lemon, pear, green apple or butter. And then there are the chardonnays that I hesitate to call chardonnays. They are thin, watery and devoid of any taste at all.
The 2011 Louis Jadot fits this last description to a T. For roughly $13-$16, this chardonnay containing 13 percent alcohol is likely perched somewhere prominently on the lower levels of a number of grocery store shelves. I have nothing more to say about it.
A better choice is the 2010 Venge (ven-ghee) Vineyards Maldonado Vineyard Chardonnay, a Dijon Clone from Napa Valley, Calif., containing 14.5 percent alcohol. I had it at Madeleine’s — A Fusion Restaurant in 2012. Dijon is the capital of the Burgundy region of France; in terms of silky, intense chardonnay (in France, this varietal would be called white Burgundy), this one cuts the mustard. It’s buttery, silky and smooth, which means it would go very well with freshly boiled lobster — and/or one, two, three, four or more leeks, large or small. Just make sure those leeks are clean. And if you happen to find some for sale at a corner farm stand, be sure to let me know.