If garlic and onion make you wrinkle your nose, try a leek instead. Leeks have a milder, more delicate flavor than their pungent relatives.
While leeks tend to be affordable and abundant in European markets, they can sometimes be harder to come by in this country. However, the farmers' market is full of unique, interesting, cold-hardy varieties at this time of year. Some of these cool-season types, which are planted in late summer and harvested during winter, actually benefit from chilly weather. For instance, the uppermost leaves of Blue Solaise leeks turn a gorgeous shade of violet when the temperature dips. Keep your eye out for Giant Musselburgh leeks. As the name implies, this variety has an enormous three-inch-wide stalk, yet is tender and mellow. In a few months, early spring and summer leeks, slimmer and taller than their winter counterparts, will appear. Look forward to their exquisite tenderness.
Farmers cultivate leeks by mounding soil around the plant's stem as it grows. The buried portion never sees the sun and therefore remains pearly white. The upper, dark green leaves are edible, but can be tough. Because leeks are grown in this manner, they harbor dirt between their leafy layers. It is important to wash them well. I like to submerge chopped leeks in a bowl of cool water and swish them around until all the dirt has sunk to the bottom of the bowl. You can also slice leeks lengthwise, rinse them under running water, and fan their layers to release any dirt. Leeks take a bit of time to get clean, but they are worth the effort for their sweetness and elegance.
If you'd like to discover a few more farmers' market treasures, please join me for a free tour of the Santa Monica Farmers' Market on Wednesday, January 8 at 9 a.m. Sign up here.
Leek and Goat Cheese Tart
Paired with a green salad, this tart makes a wonderful lunch or light dinner. Feel free to use your favorite kind of olive, or swap in marinated bell peppers and capers instead of olives.
1 frozen sheet puff pastry
3 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 large (about 12 ounce) leek
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 ounce pitted Kalamata olives
½ teaspoon fresh marjoram
1 large egg
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 425°F.
Remove the puff pastry from the freezer and let it defrost for a few minutes. When it is warm enough to be unfolded, place it on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Blend 2 ounces goat cheese, ¼ cup cream, a pinch of salt, and a few grinds of pepper in a food processor until smooth.
Slice the white and light green parts of the leek into thin rounds. Drop them into a large bowl of cool water, then swish with your fingers to dislodge any trapped dirt. The leek rounds will float and the dirt will sink to the bottom of the bowl. Drain and rinse well.
Melt the butter with the olive oil in a large skillet set over medium-high heat. Add the leeks, ¼ teaspoon salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the leeks soften, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.
Use a small knife to score a 1-inch border around the edge of the puff pastry--be careful not to cut all the way through the pastry. This edge will puff up in the oven to become the tart's crust. Spread the goat cheese mixture evenly across the pastry, staying within the border. Arrange the cooked leeks on top of the cheese, then scatter the olives, marjoram, and remaining 1 ounce goat cheese.
Beat the egg with remaining 1 tablespoon cream. Brush this egg mixture along the puff pastry border. (You won't need to use all of the egg mixture; sometimes I cook what is left into a little omelette.)
Bake the tart for 25 minutes, or until the crust is puffed and has turned a deep golden brown. Serve straight out of the oven or cooled to room temperature.