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Seasonal pantry: Leeks are at their peak, just in time for winter dishes

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On Thanksgiving Eve, I was given a lovely gift of two small heritage breed turkeys and a beautiful box of Laguna Farms produce. In that box were three beautiful leeks, and they have been a source of inspiration since that night.

I sliced and fried one of the leeks with some bacon, added chopped Russian kale, cooked it all until the kale was quite tender, then used it as a bed for pork piccata. A few days later, I had a hunger for spaghetti with a simple meat and tomato sauce. I had no onions, so I used a leek instead. It turned out perfectly, with a subtle perfume of leeks that was not overwhelming.

Leeks are at their peak right now. Typically, they begin to appear in mid to late fall and the crop continues until early spring. In California, we typically have leeks year-round because we have so many microclimates.

Leeks are alliums and are, of course, related to garlic, shallots, scallions, onions and ramps. They are little powerhouses of flavor and are capable of enhancing myriad savory dishes while keeping a low profile at the same time. You won’t always notice the shallot in a sauce or the onion in a stew, but you will definitely notice if it’s not there.

If you grow your own leeks and don’t harvest them all, they will produce large beautiful flowers. These flowers are best left in the garden, and I strongly suggest you not do what I did a number of years ago. I picked a big armful, put them in a large vase behind my bed and went on with my day. When I walked into my bedroom to go to sleep, I almost immediately began to stream tears: The leek flowers are much stronger than the leeks themselves. I had to remove them and air out my room before I could sleep. I still blush a bit and laugh whenever I recall it. You’d think I’d know better, wouldn’t you?

Over the years, I’ve written about leeks a number of times, usually in February but occasionally in December. With Dungeness crab season beginning this week, you may want to check out my recipe for crab and leek vichyssoise, which is just lovely for a holiday celebration. You can find that recipe and other recipes that call for leeks at “Eat This Now” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

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We tend to think of potato salads as a summer thing, for picnics and barbecues, with hot dogs, hamburgers and watermelon alongside. But I find them delicious year-round, especially when the potatoes are combined with seasonally appropriate ingredients, as they are here.

Warm Potato Leek Salad

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1½ pounds small red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into ¼-inch thick slices

— Kosher salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

6-8 very thin leeks, trimmed, thoroughly washed and cut into ¼-inch thick crosswise slices

— Zest of 2 small lemons

— Juice of 2 small lemons

— Black pepper in a mill

2 tablespoons minced red onion

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon dry white wine

3 tablespoons best quality extra virgin olive oil, plus more to taste

4-5 radishes, trimmed and very thinly sliced

¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

2 teaspoons fresh spearmint leaves, cut into fine julienne, optional

2 teaspoons capers or brined green peppercorns, chopped or crushed

4 hard-boiled eggs, cooled, shelled and thinly sliced into rounds

1 tablespoon freshly snipped chives

Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water until they are just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain thoroughly and tip into a wide, shallow bowl. Cover and keep warm.

Pour the olive oil into a medium sauté pan set over medium heat, add the leeks and sauté until they are just tender, about 7 to 8 minutes.

Tip the leeks into the bowl with the potatoes, add the lemon zest, lemon juice and several turns of black pepper and toss very gently. Cover and let rest for about 10 minutes.

While the salad rests, make the vinaigrette. To do so, put the red onion into a small bowl, season with salt and add the vinegar and wine. Let sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in the olive oil, taste and correct for salt and acid balance.

Add the radishes to the salad, pour the vinaigrette over it all and toss gently once or twice. Add the parsley, spearmint, if using, capers or peppercorns and the eggs and toss again.

Scatter the chives on top and enjoy warm or at room temperature.

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A friend was recently looking for holiday breakfast dishes that could be made in advance, as she is expecting a lot of company this month. This dish is perfect for such occasions, as it can be made and assembled the night before it is cooked. It also helps that it’s incredibly delicious.

An Unusual Leek and Potato Gratin

Makes 4 to 8 servings

4 large russet potatoes, scrubbed

— Olive oil

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, plus 1 tablespoon

8 small to medium leeks, top 3 inches of green leaves removed, sliced in half lengthwise and thoroughly washed (see note below)

— Kosher salt

1 cup whole milk

1 cup half-and-half

— Black pepper in a mill

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

¾ cup (3 ounces) grated Dry Jack, Estero Gold, Gruyere or similar cheese

2 teaspoons freshly snipped chives

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Set the potatoes on a clean work surface, pour a little olive oil into the palm of your hand and use both hands to rub the oil into the skin of one potato. Continue until all are similarly coated. Set the potatoes directly on the middle rack of the oven and bake until they are tender when pierced with a fork or bamboo skewer, about 50 to 60 minutes, depending on exact size. Remove from the oven and set aside.

Meanwhile, cut the leeks crosswise into ½-inch wide slices. Put the 8 tablespoons of butter into a heavy saucepan set over medium heat, and when the butter is melted, add the leeks and sauté until they just begin to soften, about 5 minutes; do not let brown.

Season with salt, stir and pour in the milk and half-and-half. Add several generous turns of black pepper and the nutmeg and simmer gently for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the parsley, stir, then remove from the heat.

Break each of the potatoes in half and use a soup spoon to scoop out the flesh. Add it to the leeks and use a fork to stir it in while leaving it quite lumpy. Discard the potato skins or reserve them for another use.

The dish, at this point, can be made several hours or a day in advance.

To finish, remove the potato-leek mixture from the refrigerator and preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Use the remaining butter to coat the inside of an ovenproof dish, preferably made of glass or porcelain. Tip the mixture into it and scatter the cheese over the top. Set on the middle rack of the oven and cook until everything is hot and bubbly and the top is golden brown, about 20 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Scatter the chives on top and enjoy hot.

Note: Leeks often have a lot of sand and dirt lurking between their leaves, including near the root end. The best way to clean them is to fill the sink or a wide shallow bowl with warm water. Put in the leeks and swish them around to loosen any hidden dirt. Some will need to be washed this way a second time. Dry on a tea towel.

Serving suggestions

For breakfast, divide among individual plates and top each serving with a poached egg. Season with salt and pepper before enjoying.

For dinner, serve with roast chicken, braised lamb shanks, grilled portobello mushrooms or grilled cabbage wedges.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The New Cook’s Tour of Sonoma.” Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com

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