Sat, Dec 01, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Ian’s Table: Take a leek

Locally grown Japanese leeks are gaining traction as a delicacy on Taiwanese tables

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

Grilled leeks lend themselves to a simple but flavorful dish of roast chicken and potatoes.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

Leeks, according to the Oxford Companion to Food, are “a member of the onion family, distinguished by [their] mild sweet flavor.” The Companion goes on to say that the leek “is beset by the problems of classification which seem to affect the whole [onion] family.” To avoid the issue of exactly what a leek (大蔥) is in Taiwan — as there are issues of translation and inconsistent terminology — I have confined myself here to the use of what is described as the Japanese leek (日本大蔥). Unlike the thick-stemmed leeks in the UK, these are slimmer and more delicate, resembling overgrown shallots.

Given that Japanese leeks are a labor-intensive cultivar with a relatively recent history in Taiwan, their price would generally exclude them from use in European leek staples such as vichyssoise or cock-a-leekie soup. An article in the Liberty Times in January suggested that the delicate Japanese leek is gradually gaining traction in the local market. This is particularly, and unsurprisingly, true in Japanese restaurants, which the article suggested were queuing up to purchase locally-grown Japanese leeks for use on their menus.

Traditionally, leeks accompany the classic dish of Peking duck, but in my experience, I have found a wide range of leek-like vegetables in this role. Most low-end “one-duck-in-three-styles” (烤鴨三吃) eateries do not even bother with the subterfuge, using the ubiquitous shallot in place of anything that has aspirations to being a leek. The thick, beefy leek used in European soups, while sometimes suitable for use raw (especially the white stem), is often too coarse a garnish for the duck, leek and hoisin sauce combo wrapped in a steamed Chinese bun, yet it is being pressed into service on some occasions.

Although a member of the onion family, leeks do not have a bulb, and are instead prized for their long, white stems, which are actually tightly-bunched leaves. This much-prized section, with its softness and translucent whiteness, is created by piling earth up around the leek as it grows, rather in the manner of white asparagus. This sort of work inevitably requires a very hands-on approach, and the cost of Japanese leeks reflects this additional labor.

That said, Japanese leeks are one of the more subtle and appealing flavors offered up by the onion family. This is not to say that regular brown onions or shallots have no appeal. But if you are looking for an ingredient to dress up a salad, Japanese leeks will answer the call with little more than a quick chop to the required shape and size.

In addition to their winning flavor, leeks are tremendously nutritious. The “world’s healthiest foods” Web site (www.whfoods.com) lauds its “unique combination of flavonoids and sulfur-containing nutrients,” qualities the leek shares with other members of the onion family.

While the Japanese leek is cultivated as a delicacy in Taiwan, the green leaves can be a little tough and may not be suitable for minimalist preparations such as salads or roasting as described below. They are nevertheless full of flavor and nutrition and should not be wasted. Adding them to a saute or to soup is an excellent way of making use of the whole plant when the white stems have been put aside for more elevated and distinguished applications.

ROAST CHICKEN WITH LEEK AND POTATOES

Recipe

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