I keep coming back to this subject, mostly because my education regarding it is continuing – the subject is, all the stuff we throw away instead of eating. The most obvious is the stuff in our refrigerators – hey! I’m a prime violator, but I’m trying to get better.
But as a gardener, I’m becoming even more aware of the huge amount of garden produce that we create and then waste – Why?
I think we do this for several reasons – one is that we gardeners all make the same mistake over, and over, and over again – we plant far more than we could ever use! Some of the excess we give away, but most of the excess just stays there, or becomes compost. Another reason why we don’t use all our garden produce is that we gardeners tend to be perfectionists – and when it comes time to pick for our own tables, we become very selective, and we leave much, less than perfect stuff, again, to rot in the garden.
It’s just amazing how much valuable produce we leave out in the garden every year – take leeks.
I think leeks are one of the most splendid things you can grow in a garden. When you see what they cost in the grocery store, this fact is driven home even more – and yet I treat my own leeks with an emotion just short of contempt – I don’t know why, but most of what I grow never gets picked, and simply becomes fertilizer for next year’s crops.
My neighbor, Brenda, who tends a much finer garden than I – in fact, Brenda has what the English would call, a proper garden - mentioned to me that she had some nice leeks in her garden, and she wondered if I might want a few. Oh Yeah! Brenda’s leeks were at least two, maybe three times larger than mine -don’t ask why- and because I planted mine early last summer, mine were now setting seed, which means they have a thick, hard central core, which is anything but inviting. Brenda’s leeks were planted in late summer -to overwinter- and they are not going to seed now, and so are still soft and luscious, even though they are giants! Timing is an important -and complex- garden issue.
As I looked at Brenda’s leeks, I couldn’t believe how big they were! Most were as thick as the business end of a baseball bat! And they had a set of leaves and stalk above the white section that easily reached over three feet in the air. This is the part we normally throw out, or at best, send to the compost heap. But immediately I knew that would be a crime – my mind was going crazy with ideas on how I could use the entire plant. I started digging – but as soon as I had the second one pulled, I knew that was all I was going to need – Yup, two leeks would be plenty to do what I had in mind.
Cleaning those babies was a real bitch! Leeks have a habit of collecting soil in each leaf junction – all the way from the tippitedy-top right down to the nice white base – and if you don’t get it out, whatever you make with them is ruined. Add to that the slug factor -I removed at least 30 slugs and snails from their hiding places in those leaf joints – this is a cleaning job that really is better done outside than in a kitchen.
I decided to make two things with those leeks – with the beautiful white bottom sections, I’d do braised/baked leeks, and with the tops I’d make a vegetable stock. I cut the bottom to about 8 inches, which would perfectly fit into my 8″x8″ baking dish, and I filled my biggest stock pot 3/4s full of chopped and well washed leek tops. I immediately filled the stock pot with water until I could see the water just under the top of the leeks, and put it on the stove to boil.
The leek bottoms I sliced longitudinally from the green end down all the way through the root (Do not cut the root end off! You want that root end to hold the rest of the leek together.) – I then sliced the halves into quarters. My two leeks were now cut into 8 sections – these I had to clean under a strong blast of the cold water faucet, to be sure I had gotten the last of that stubborn dirt out of there – they will open nicely, but not come apart as long as the root end stays attached. OK, you’re done – put those aside, and adjust your stock pot down to a gentle simmer – it can cook for 5-6 hours, or more. Occasionally give it a stir and push the greens down into the water – just let it do its thing.
If you’d like to make braised/baked leeks, you could do a lot worse than this recipe, which is the one I used – Nice.
As the leek stock begins to reduce down in the pot, you can begin tasting it – if you’d like, you can add a little salt to bring out the flavor, but you really don’t have to do this now – I make these vegetable base stocks to use later in sauces and soups, and when you put together your final dish, you can then add the salt – do don’t rush it. But, it’ll perhaps give you a better idea of the flavor development of your stock – Your call.
My stock was destined for a simple chicken/vegetable soup – at about 6 hours of simmering, I pulled it off the heat and strained the liquid from the solids – although I started with more than two gallons of water, I eventually got about a gallon of cooked down and strained broth. If you have a good rich stock to work with, making a fantastic soup is almost guaranteed – my leek stock was well flavored, but quite one dimensional at this point, so I now began to use it as my “canvas” in my quest for soup artistry. I pulled a pack of two on-the-bone chicken breasts from the freezer, added them (frozen) to my strained stock, as well as two fresh bay leaves too, and returned it to the stove to begin phase two at a medium simmer.
In the meantime, I readied some chopped onion, carrot, cabbage, and a few stalks of celery on my chopping block – I also added in a few cloves of minced garlic. But I didn’t put these in the pot yet – you want that chicken to have plenty of time to cook down and add all the flavor it can to your soup – I gave the chicken at least an hour and pulled it out – then my chopped veggies went in all at once to continue at a simmer.
When the chicken is cooled enough to handle, chop it into nice big chunks, and set it aside.
As your soup begins to develop its final character, you need to frequently taste it, and make whatever adjustments necessary – this is the “art” of cooking! It is purely subjective – and the only way you can become proficient at this task is to constantly do it – make tasting a kitchen habit. This is a perfect time to determine if your soup needs more salt – it’s also a good time to decide if you’ll use any herbs to further build the flavor. I added a few teaspoons of dry oregano, which I think complements this particular soup well. Almost any herb is worth a try, especially if you have some fresh.
After about 20 minutes of simmering the vegetables, taste them to see if they need more cooking – how do you like your soup vegetables? If you like them with some crunch in them, they may be about done at this point – I like mine softer than that, but I may stop cooking now anyway – why? Because soup, like stew, benefits from a rest period, where the flavors can meld and build. So, if you have the time, stop the cooking early, let the soup cool down, and an hour before serving time, heat it up once more to a simmer.
With my soup nice and hot, and about five minutes before serving, I added back my chunked chicken, some chopped tomatoes and a few handfuls of raw spinach – the tomatoes are best when they hold their fresh shape and texture, and the spinach only needs a minute to soften nicely, and it’s fresh green brightness makes the soup look great at serving time.
This kind of vegetable stock, made with garden excesses, is super perfect for the freezer. Use it then whenever you want a really nice sauce or soup – and please allow me to honor the intent of this post, and suggest that perhaps its best use is as a vehicle to use up refrigerator leftovers – Yes, that may sound mundane, but damn, we do throw away far too much perfectly good food in this country – even in a recession!
So, get even greener – cook ‘em instead of letting them rot, and you’ll eat better and feel better for it.