The flesh is leek

Romesco is a famous Spanish sauce made with peppers, nuts and garlic. Bread is added as a means of thickening the sauce, which is then blended into a smooth paste. The sauce was first created by fishermen and is traditionally eaten with seafood. 

I’ve paired this recipe for romesco sauce with baked leeks. The match is inspired by an annual event held in Catalonia, called the Calçotada, which celebrates the calçot onion. A mild onion similar to a leek, it has a stalk that is more white than green, the opposite of most leeks. Traditionally the calçot is grilled over a fire before being wrapped in paper. It then continues to cook and steam in the residual heat. After a few minutes it is removed from the package, peeled quickly, and dipped into a romesco sauce. Originally, this was eaten at the start of a large feast. Eaten with the hands while standing around a fire in the winter months, it is a wondrous thing. Calçots are now being grown in Australia and are worth looking out for. 

Leeks are important winter vegetables, and leek and potato soup is a winner. A good hearty leek and potato soup with some weighty bread can be a stand-alone dinner. When making leek and potato soup, emphasis needs to be put on the quality of the base stock. 

Another great use for leeks, and a vehicle for their unique flavour, is risotto. Replace the onion in your risotto recipe with the whites from two leeks. Using a good stock, cook out the risotto and slip half a cup of chopped raw prawn meat in with the zest of half a lemon at the last minute. Stir for a minute to cook the prawns, then serve. 

When choosing leeks, go for pert stems with spritely green tips, and look for stems that are no thicker than two centimetres. The thinner the better. I find the large leeks a bit woody and too strong in flavour. The younger, thinner leeks are sweeter. 

Leeks are rarely credited as the headline act, unless of course in leeks vinaigrette, a dish of dressed leeks that are left to marinate at room temperature.

To make this vinaigrette, wash your leeks well, taking care to remove any dirt or grit that may have made its way between the sheaths. Blanch or steam until they yield. When cool enough to handle, trim your leeks and slice in half. Lay the leeks on a platter and smother in mustardy dressing. Top with plenty of chopped hard-boiled egg and a good sprinkling of chopped tarragon, salt, and white pepper. Served alongside roast chicken or baked whole fish at lunch, this dish can be as impressive as a plate of asparagus. I note this for the sad fact that another common name for leeks is “poor man’s asparagus”.

Leeks with romesco sauce

Serves 4 

– 3 cloves garlic, halved

– 6 tbsp olive oil

– 50g stale white bread, cut into 1.5cm cubes

– 100g whole blanched almonds, toasted

– 1½ tbsp red wine vinegar

– ½ tsp dried chilli flakes

– 150g tinned piquillo peppers or 2 medium red capsicums,
    roasted, peeled and seeded

– 40 strands saffron, infused in 8 tbsp boiling water

– ½ tsp smoked paprika

– salt

– 4 leeks

– 2 tbsp olive oil

– 2 tbsp water

– 2 tbsp shelled hazelnuts, toasted

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan. Cook the garlic in the olive oil until it starts to colour. Remove the garlic and use the same oil to fry the cubes of bread. When the bread is golden, remove from the oil and reserve both.

In a food processor, blend the toasted almonds, fried bread, garlic and vinegar. When the nuts are finely chopped, add the chilli, piquillo peppers, saffron water and paprika. With the motor running, pour in the oil reserved from cooking the garlic and bread.

Season to taste with salt.

Wash and trim the leeks, then cut in half lengthways and place the cut side up in a baking dish that holds them snugly. Drizzle the oil and water over the leeks, sprinkle them with a pinch of salt and bake in a moderate oven until they have softened and cooked all the way through.

Slather a few spoonfuls of romesco sauce over the leeks and sprinkle with chopped, roasted hazelnuts.

Wine pairing:

2012 Capçanes Lasendal garnacha blend, Montsant, Spain ($40) – Liam O’Brien, sommelier, Cutler & Co

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2015 as "The flesh is leek". Subscribe here.

Andrew McConnell
is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.