They are by no means the most popular fall vegetables – not as glamorous as heirloom carrots, as in-demand as onions or as unconditionally beloved as Yukon Gold potatoes.
Unlike kale (also known as: the cool kid) or so-cute-it's-painful Chioggia beets, nobody will ever feature leeks at a boutique organic juice bar.
"You want to know how popular leeks are?" asked Bob Davis, a Paris, Ont., leek farmer. "Walk into any grocery store and look at the shelf space they get, that will tell you." (Good luck even finding them at some places.) When Davis needs equipment to plant or harvest or process leeks, he has to go to Europe to source it. "We can't go down the road to our local John Deere dealer and buy leek equipment."
Even Canada's cabbage crop is more valuable than the country's annual leek production – by a magnitude of six, Statistics Canada says. (The country's entire leek crop is worth about $7-million annually.)
But to my mind leeks, a more mellow, far more refined cousin to onions and garlic, are autumn's most underrated vegetable, and not merely in a supporting role. In France, where leeks have long been afforded the respect they deserve, they're often blanched for 10 or 15 minutes in salted, boiling water, until soft and rich-tasting, served napped with Dijon vinaigrette.
In Tokyo, where they're longer-stemmed and skinnier than in much of North America (the fatter, stubbier varieties grown in most parts of Canada stand up better to cold weather), I had them grilled over charcoal at a yakitori bar this fall. They were soft and smoky on their outsides but still crunchy in their middles – a superb accompaniment to beer and char-grilled chicken.
Yotam Ottolenghi, the London-based chef and food-world demigod, dips blanched leek segments with egg and panko crumbs, then deep-fries them, whereupon they're served with crème fraiche and marinated peppers. (That recipe appears in the extraordinary Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, which was released for the first time in Canada this fall.)
And when they're simply sweated – not browned or caramelized; just sweated – with a bit of salt for 40 minutes or so in nothing more than butter, leeks turn sweet and fragrant and hauntingly delicious, into the sort of side dish that dinner guests demand the recipe for. (Tip: do them under a parchment paper lid. It's easy. Look it up.)
Yet my favourite leek recipe uses them as a stand-in for fettucine, in a creamy, egg and pancetta-napped leek carbonara.
I found the recipe while leafing through Le Pigeon: Cooking at The Dirty Bird, a new cookbook from the chef at Le Pigeon, a top Portland, Ore., bistro. (It's co-authored by Montrealer Meredith Erickson, who also did the stellar Joe Beef book.) I made the dish not an hour after reading about it. I couldn't help myself. It's one of the tastiest things I've eaten all fall.
You start by cutting leeks into fettucine-like strips, then blanch them in salt water for 30 seconds. (See related recipe.) After that you use them much like you'd use wheat-flour pasta, tossing the leek "noodles" with softened onion and a bit of pancetta, then some pasta water and egg yolks, a quick squeeze of lemon and a blizzard of Parmesan cheese.
It's creamy and eggy and porky and cheesy – as voluptuous-tasting as any simple pasta dish has any right in the world to be. But the leeks give it something more than that. They give it understated class and character, mellow punch and complex vegetal roundness.
You know, like nobody has said about dinosaur kale or heirloom carrots, ever.