Know’st Thou Fluellen?

I’ve written before about leeks in vinaigrette being one of my all-time favorite appetizers. Leeks have a particularly savory completeness to their flavor, an almost meaty umami element that’s extremely compelling and addictive. They take well to all forms of cooking, and their silky texture when perfectly done—slick layers sliding apart under the fork—is hard to beat for sensual pleasure in the vegetable kingdom.

A couple of days ago I was up in Hudson shooting more pictures at Fish & Game (no website yet; link is to my article) and Jori made some leeks roasted in hot ashes from the wood oven. Stripped down, halved lengthwise, and dressed with a simple anchovy vinaigrette and salt-cured egg yolks, they were a perfect expression of April comfort food: seemingly austere but actually packed with all sorts of detail, and highly nourishing to one’s optimism about the rest of the greens that are on their way. This exact same treatment would kill with asparagus in another few weeks when it comes up.

This shot of the leeks right out of the fire, looking like they were used to scrub the fireplace, reminded me of how ugly the remainder of last year’s leeks are out in my garden right now: bent, crooked, and much more grey than green without. Give them a wash and trim, though, and they’re practically incandescent within: gold ingots hiding in plain sight. While the baby greens are adorable under their hoops, they are but garnishes at this stage. The tattered old leeks are where the real action is for the next couple of weeks. (And the parsnips, but that’s another post).

Here’s the result: alchemy.

Since this shoot coincided with the first truly magnificent spring day this year, I came home full of energy to dig and plant and cook and eat. And imitate these leeks. So yesterday I pulled some and did a simpler version as a first course. My kid eats his greens, enthusiastically, but I still often serve a vegetable first course to quiet his hungry clamoring for food. It’s win/win: he devours it all, and I don’t have to remind him to take some bites before he fills up on whatever the main course might be.

Olive oil, cider vinegar, a couple of anchovies, and an ume plum, worked smooth in the suribachi: not the worst vinaigrette ever devised, and a pretty skippy sauce for the leeks, first browned and then steamed in the lidded skillet for a few minutes with a splash of sherry. So good.

This dish is a helpful reminder: as we clean our gardens out and get ready to plant, some of the blasted, fucked-up looking detritus we yank out to compost might actually be really good food if we peel off the outer layer. It might also be a good metaphor for how we treat people and contribute to building a harmonious society. You know, if you’re into that sort of thing.

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