As the first glimmers of spring arrive in pockets of Victoria, I still have a long wait before I can enjoy the “classic” spring vegetables. Our little farm is situated atop a hill and, while the soil is fabulous and the water plentiful, being more than 750 metres above sea level has made me rethink how I grow my vegetables. It means I will have to wait until November for our asparagus and that my peas and broad beans won’t start until mid- to late October but will go on far longer than those of most of my lower-lying gardening friends. The classic herbs of early spring – chervil, chives and the first parsley and dill – will make an earlier appearance in the hothouse, but, like the peas, it will be well into October before they flourish outside.
My favourite vegetable – outside of early autumn, when there are too many things to choose from – would have to be the leek. There is a gentleness and softness to leeks that transforms many dishes. Think of a leek and Gruyere quiche, a double-baked leek and goat’s cheese soufflé, or adding leeks cooked gently in butter to a custard for a savoury bread and butter pudding. All of these dishes require the leeks to be washed well, chopped finely and cooked slowly and gently in butter. But the good news is leeks are flourishing right now.
The following recipe takes a very different approach to the leeks, cooking them en papillote – that is, wrapped in paper. The leeks are split and cleaned, laid on paper, then stuffed and wrapped in a paper pouch. Cooking en papillote always has a sense of prestidigitation for me. First, you hide the contents in a paper bag, subject it to the heat of an oven and then, voilà, out comes something that is a combination of baked, steamed and poached, all at once. These leeks are delicious on their own, or make a wonderful side dish to fish or chicken.
Serves 8 as a side dish
– 4 large leeks, rinsed
– 1 tbsp plus 1 tsp flaked salt
– ½ cup olive oil
– 100g unsalted butter, melted
– ⅓ cup raisins, chopped
– ¼ cup crumbled blue cheese
– ¼ cup dill, chopped
– 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
– ½ tbsp Tabasco sauce
– 1½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
– 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
– 24 almonds, coarsely chopped
– 2 anchovy fillets, chopped (optional)
Preheat the oven to 220°C, then line a rimmed baking sheet or Swiss roll tin with a 30cm x 80cm piece of parchment paper (half the sheet will be hanging off), or use two 30cm x 40cm pieces.
Cut the dark green parts from the leeks, then finely chop them until you have one cup. Wash thoroughly and set aside.
Starting about half a centimetre from the roots, cut the leeks lengthwise down the centre, leaving the bottom layer intact. Rinse under cold running water, gently separating the leaves to release any dirt, then pat dry. Transfer the leeks to the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle a quarter-teaspoon of salt over each leek.
In a medium bowl, mix the oil, butter, raisins, cheese, dill, vinegar, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauces, pepper, almonds and anchovies (if using) with the remaining salt and the chopped leek greens. Spoon a half-cup of the mixture down the centre of each leek. Fold the hanging edge of the parchment paper over the leeks, or place a second piece of parchment on top, to cover. Tuck the edges under and fold, creating a sealed pouch.
Roast for 30 minutes, then discard the top layer of parchment paper. While you are doing this, turn the oven up to 240-250ºC.
Roast or broil the leeks until both they and the filling are slightly charred in places (two to three minutes). Remove from the oven, then carefully cut each in half crosswise using kitchen shears or a sharp knife and serve.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 7, 2019 as "Big fat leek spreading". Subscribe here.