The leek is a wonderful vegetable currently in season and often overlooked for its more exotic counterparts. A member of the allium family, but milder in flavour than the onion, like them, they are rich in sulphur and consequently both anti-bacterial and antiviral. They are also rich in flavonoids which have a cardio-protective effect on the body. Containing a fibre called inulin, they act as a prebiotic, that is, they feed probiotics and promote good bacteria in the gut, thus helping to maintain a healthy digestive tract. Leeks provide a good source of folic acid, iron and potassium , as well as lesser amounts of B vitamins, magnesium and calcium. They are alkalising and have a cleansing or diuretic effect on the body, can help with bladder stones, and may also be used to help regulate bowel movements. They are anti-arthritic and can also help alleviate the symptoms of gout. In other words, they are a wonder vegetable.
In terms of cooking with leeks, they are very versatile. Most commonly used in soups (as part of the stock, or on its own in a vichyssoise), leeks are delicious boiled and served cold, dressed with a vinaigrette. They also work well with Asian dishes to delicately flavour broths. They work particularly well with potatoes, ham and cheese, and make theperfect comfort food for wet, cold winter evenings.
My mum used to make this dish for us in winter, and we all loved it. I suspect it was inspired by a Robert Carrier recipe. The leeks are blanched and then wrapped in ham, topped with a cheese sauce and baked until bubbling and golden. It is quite indulgent due to the butter, milk and cheese content, so should be viewed a treat rather than a routine supper.. Make sure you use the full fat versions of all the dairy items to maximise your intake of fat-soluble vitamins, and to really enjoy the taste. Food that is whole is more satisfying than food that has had its fat removed.
Leeks and Ham Au Gratin (to feed four)
- 8 leeks, cleaned and trimmed
- 8 slices of good quality roast ham
- 75g butter
- 75g flour
- 1 1/2 pints milk
- 150g grated cheese (cheddar or gruyere are good)
- grated nutmeg
- seasoning to taste
- Preheat oven to 180C
- Blanche the leeks for 5 mins or so until tender (use the tip of a knife to test if yielding)
- Drain and pat and squeeze leeks dry
- Wrap leeks with ham
- Place in buttered baking dish
- To make the cheese sauce:
Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan
Add flour, stirring with a wooden spoon, for a couple of minutes
Remove from heat and add the milk, stirring well
Return to the heat and cook, stirring, until the sauce has thickened
Leave to cook for 10 minutes or so
Add grated nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste
Add the cheese gradually, so it melts and blends in evenly
- Pour the cheese sauce over the leeks and ham
- Place in oven and cook for 40 minutes or so, until golden
- Serve with a large rocket or watercress salad, dressed with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar
Why not discover this underrated vegetable and try this dish to celebrate with the Welsh on St David’s Day tomorrow with a good glass of red. The husband recommends Pinot Noir or Gamay grape.
And to celebrate the weekend, how about a Friday Night Cocktail?
For 2 Tartinis, or Blood Orange Martinis
- Juice 3 seasonal blood oranges
- In a cocktail shaker chilled with ice add
4 fluid ounces of vodka
1 fluid ounce Cointreau
2 fluid ounces of the blood orange juice
- Shake, strain and serve