Although leeks are available all round, they have a definite season: from September to May, so they will still be at their best for another couple of months. At the moment some are as thick as the handle of a baseball bat, but at other times they are not much thicker than a pencil.
Spanish housewives make good use of leeks but with the exception of those in the Basque Country and in Navarra, they do not think of them as a vegetable in their own right: they are used mainly as a means of adding flavour to other dishes.
Unlike Britons and Americans, who have dishes in which leeks have the leading role, Spaniards mainly chop and slice them and use their sweet and aromatic flavours to perk up dishes of vegetables, fish, poultry and meat.
But Basques and Navarrans are an exception, serving leeks as a starter, sometimes lukewarm with a vinaigrette. They poach the white of the leeks in lengths of about 10cms until tender but still slightly al dente at the centre. They are served with a vinaigrette made with virgen extra olive oil, cider vinegar, finely chopped parsley and chopped hard-boiled egg.
British and American cookbooks have many recipes in which leeks are done as the main ingredient and served as a starter or side dish to accompany main courses. Few of us, however, make much use of them. This is a pity because most leek recipes are easy-peasy and are not at all labour intensive.
To cook the cleaned and trimmed white of leeks as a starter place them in a saucepan in which they are a tight fit. Cover them with stock and some lemon juice, which will help to keep them white, and add seasoning and herbs of your choice. Cover and simmer for 10-12 minutes, depending on their thickness.
Don’t cook them until they are limp and soft. They are at their best when just tender on the outside and al dente at the centre. Leeks cooked this way can be left to drain and then topped with garlic and herb butter to make a delicious little starter with no effort involved. They are also ideal for serving with grilled fish or meat.
These whites of cooked leek can also be served with a creamy white sauce or a cheese and mustard sauce. You can also add chopped parsley to the white sauce, or any other herb of your choice. Another good option is a smooth sauce made from fresh tomatoes cooked for a short time in plenty of virgen extra olive oil.
The uncooked cleaned and trimmed whites can be baked in the oven. Arrange the leeks in an ovenproof dish, dot with knobs of butter and drizzle with lemon juice. Add a dash of sherry or dry white wine. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, as well as chopped parsley and bay leaves. Cover the dish with tinfoil and bake at 190C for 30-40 minutes, depending on the thickness of the leeks.
Unless you have found some very young leeks, they are never eaten raw. Leeks that are anything less than extremely young have textures and taste that require tempering by blanching them in boiling water and perhaps even simmering them for a few minutes.
If you especially want to have raw leeks in a salad, the sliced white of a young leek could be marinated in a little wine vinegar and salt. But the leek, and the salad, will benefit if it is first blanched in boiling water.
You can make a superb Spanish tortilla with fresh garlic stalks (ajetes), the green of spring onions, green peppers, finely sliced tender green leek stalks, roughly chopped parsley and chopped spinach. Quantities depend on personal taste. I usually include two bunches of ajetes, the inner green stalks of two leeks, two thinly sliced dark green peppers, two handfuls of roughly chopped parsley and enough spinach to make a filling for six large eggs.
Mrs Beeton used to think that leeks, like garlic, lingered on the breath for too long but she was quick to see they can make an interesting substitute for asparagus. She trimmed the leeks well, simmered them until tender and served them on toast covered with a thick well-flavoured white sauce.
Leeks combine well with bacon and cured ham. Make a quiche according to our usual recipe but using only chopped bacon or cured ham with the finely sliced white of leeks as the filling.
Spanish cooks wrap lengths of cooked white leek in cooked ham, drizzle them with a bechamel sauce, sprinkle on grated cheese and bake them until the surface is golden and crips. The cheese can be grana padano, cheddar, manchego or the Basque idiazabal which is always available at El Corte Inglés.
The leeks currently on sale at supermarkets and vegetable stalls at the Mercat d’Olivar are the seasonal kind and they are ideal for these recipes and others you may come across.
Out-of-season leeks can sometimes have a stringy texture plus a flavour that is too reminiscent of onion. However, these leeks are suitable for use in casseroles, braised meats and poultry and also for pot roasts. Old leeks take longer to cook but they can be used for adding to the stockpot.
The ideal leek is not very long, of medium thickness, very white and with tender stalks that are a paler shade of green. The stalks should be fresh and firm and not curling over. Leeks with these characteristics are young and tender.
Having bought a bunch of young leeks, they must be given a good wash. Leeks are grown in holes in the ground in such a way that the root section (the white part) is loose but surrounded by damp soil.
This section remains white because it never sees daylight, whereas the upper stalks are exposed to light and turn green. This cultivation method means that silt collects between the white and green parts. That’s why leeks need careful washing.
To wash a whole leek, trim at the root end and cut off the upper green stalks. Strip off the outer layers if they are blemished, dry or look tough. Then stand the remaining part, upside down, in a container filled with water.
Most recipes call for leeks to be sliced and chopped, in which case they are easy to clean. Cut each section in two lengthways and splay them apart as you hold them under running water. This will wash away any remaining dirt.
When cooking whole white sections, strip off the outer stalks until no silt is visible. These outer stalks can be used for another recipe.