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Cooking Local Caramelized Leek Soup With Vampire Chaser Crostini

April 06, 2012

    Welcome back to the kitchen. Friends, I am ready to finally start celebrating. We have made it through darkest winter, into spring, and right up to the edge of the growing season. The first local produce is starting to show up, and I couldn’t be happier. We’ve got spinach, kale, baby greens, herbs, and even some asparagus and leeks. If you are super lucky you may be able to track down some super early pea pods, but I’m guessing they won’t make it to us for a bit longer. And I haven’t yet heard of any morel mushrooms appearing, but I’m eagerly awaiting their arrival.
    So I am very much ready for a simple, delicious spring meal that makes use of some of these first Washington-grown foods. I’ll tell you the very first thing that popped into my head. I am a huge fan of leeks. They are sweeter than onions, and often have a more complex flavor. I love leeks with all my roasts, sautéed in a frittata, or in place of onions in a great many dishes.
    But when it comes to leek soup, it seems like there is often really only one option: leek and potato soup. This hearty winter soup can be quite tasty when done right, and often I find it is just fairly bland and boring. But today I want to make a lighter, fresher leek soup that uses even fewer ingredients and is perfect to welcome in the spring. It has very few ingredients, but we get lots of flavor by caramelizing the leeks and using high quality chicken stock and fresh herbs. Yum!
    To go along with this green and fragrant soup, I want to make a recreation of a dish I loved as a kid. Once in awhile my dad would take my brother and me to the Fall River Inn in Bernardston Massachusetts. It was a charming medium-scale old restaurant, a sort of classic prime rib on Sundays kind of place. They served an appetizer there called vampire chasers, which were basically crostini heavily rubbed with garlic then broiled with melted brie cheese over the top. A very simple idea, but very tasty nonetheless. We’ll serve that with a simple spring asparagus and pea pod salad, and call it a delicious meal!
    Now, before we get started, let me talk a little more about leeks, because I love them and I think they too often get overlooked. Leeks have two major pitfalls: they can hide quite a bit of dirt and grit that can ruin even the best tasting dish, and they can get kind of stringy in the green part, depending on how you chop and cook them. But never fear, we will easily conquer both leek issues with ease.
    The basic trick to cleaning your leaks, an all important step that is even more crucial for locally grown leeks that may hide more dirt than their conventional cousins, is to cut them in half the long way and wash them very thoroughly. Leeks grow up through sandy soil, and trap grit in between their many layers. So cut off the root end of all of your leeks, then split them in half the long way. Soak the leek halves in some cold water, then wash each leek individually, spreading each and every layer of leaves apart and checking for dirt. You can also thinly slice the leeks crosswise, submerge them in water to wash, then strain them all in a colander. It may seem tedious, but it is absolutely essential that we hunt down that dirt, or our teeth will suffer through the soup!
    Now, in terms of the toughness of the green part of leeks, I think that is mostly a fallacy. Anyone who just uses the leek whites and throws away the green is wasting. At least save those for some delicious vegetable stock! But otherwise, just slice the greens nice and thin and you shouldn’t have a problem, especially in long cooking soups and stews. That being said, I do discard about the last green inch or so, where it gets really tough.

    So there are a couple of general tips on leeks, let’s get cooking this Green Spring Leek Soup with Vampire Chaser Cheesy Crostini. We’ll need:

•    2 pounds leeks (white and pale green parts; about 2 bunches)
•    3 tablespoons unsalted butter
•    1 1/4 teaspoons sugar (just a dash, really)
•    1/4 cup vermouth (a splash)
•    3 1/2 cups chicken broth (use the really high quality stuff if you don’t have homemade, use veggie stock for a vegetarian recipe)
•    One or two sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves removed from stem and chopped fine (you could also use tarragon if you prefer)
•    Salt and pepper to taste
•    Fresh parsley and chives, plus about ½ cup plain yogurt, for garnish (optional)
Cut off leek root bottoms, halve leeks lengthwise, and thinly slice crosswise. In a large bowl or pot of cold water wash the leeks very well and lift from water into a large sieve to drain.
In a 6-quart heavy kettle, melt the butter over a medium heat, add the leeks, and turn down the heat after a few minutes. Cook the leeks in the butter over very low heat, stirring occasionally, until some begin to turn golden. Now, this can take some real patience. Actual caramelization will probably take about 40 minutes. I know that is a long time, and if you just want to do a regular quick sauté, that is ok. But for real caramelization and that unmatched heavenly flavor, you have to cook the leeks (or onions) very slowly over a low heat.
When your leeks have caramelized, stir in sugar and cook, stirring occasionally, another 10 minutes or so. The sugar will help the leeks caramelize and sweeten, it is kind of a culinary shortcut, but it tastes awesome so let’s go for it. Stir in the fresh thyme and the vermouth and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is basically all evaporated and most leeks are golden, about 10 to 15 minutes.
Deglaze the pot with 1/2 cup broth (scraping up any bits that are sticking to the bottom) and cook, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes more, until liquid is evaporated and leeks are deep golden. They should be pretty dark and delicious by now. Finally, add the remaining 3 cups of broth and bring the soup just to a boil, but not for long. Season the soup with salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste.
Serve the caramelized leek soup, garnished with fresh chopped parsley and chives, and a little dollop of plain yogurt if you wish. If you already have a ton of pea vines growing in your garden, you can use some of the tender vines themselves as a tasty garnish instead. Some recipes might add a splash of cream, but I like this soup’s simplicity and relative healthiness. It makes a great first course to a big roast or some such thing, but also makes for a great light meal all on its own, especially with the cheesy garlic crostini we are going to make.
    So for these Vampire Chasers cheesy garlic crostini we will need:

    -1 baguette or crusty French or Italian loaf of bread, freshly and locally baked if possible
    -3 or 4 cloves raw garlic, peeled
    -about 2 tablespoons olive oil
    -about ½ wheel ripe brie cheese or other flavorful semi-ripe cheese
    -about ¼ cup very finely chopped parsley, for garnish

    Just slice up your loaf of bread into ½” thin slices, on an angle if you are using a narrow baguette. Lightly brush or drizzle each slice with a little olive oil. Ideally, you want to grill these crostini on the bbq to get that smoky toasted flavor. But because we aren’t grilling anything else with this meal, I’m just going to toast them in a 350 degree oven until they are crispy but not burned.
    The next step is what makes these crostini into vampire chasers. Liberally rub each piece with the raw, peeled garlic, which will turn into a paste on the rough toast’s surface. Use as much as you dare!
    Top each crostini with a 1/4” thick slice of brie cheese and arrange them on a baking sheet so the cheese doesn’t slide off in the oven. Broil the crostini briefly, just long enough for the brie to melt, bubble, and brown a bit. As the vampire chasers cool, sprinkle them with the finely chopped parsley. Yum! Don’t fear the garlic, friends.
    And there we have the basic foundation for a fabulous spring meal. These cheesy garlic crostini are perfect to dip into that simple, sweet, rich caramelized leek soup. I might finish this off by very briefly sautéing chopped asparagus and pea pods in a little olive oil, tossing with a little dressing, and serving a simple spring salad on the side.
    I hope this awakens your taste for local foods, because from here on out we will get more and more every week. What recipes are you cooking to celebrate spring? Send me any questions, comments, or suggestions to Cooking local in the KOHO Kitchen, I’m Isaac Kaplan-Woolner.