With the holidays upon us, it's a satisfying feeling going into the cellar or the garden to collect leeks, onions, and other alliums for your holiday meal. Here are some tips for preparing these pungent veggies.
Leeks are the king of soup onions and are regarded in France as the asparagus of the poor. The patron saint of Wales, Saint David, exhorted his countrymen who were faithful to King Cadwaldr to distinguish themselves from their Saxon foes by wearing a leek in their caps. Even now on Saint David's Day, March 1, Welshmen sport leeks, the emblem of Wales, on their lapels.
To prepare leeks for cooking, trim off the roots, remove any bruised or dried leaves and cut off the tops, leaving only the white stem and tender part of the green leaves. Slice the leeks in half lengthwise starting a couple of inches below the top of the white portion, and continue upwards through the remaining green portion. Spread the layers slightly and wash the leeks very carefully, flushing water down into the white part to remove dirt that accumulated as the leeks grew. Then slice the leeks as directed by your recipe.
In warm areas chives may still be growing in your garden and in cold climates they make great indoor herb plants. Chives taste best if chopped finely and used as garnish and in spreads, dips, and eggs. To cut chives, use scissors and trim a few of the stalks to a height of one inch rather than cutting the tips off the whole plant. When they grow back to 6 to 7 inches tall, they're ready to be trimmed again.
The queen of the sauce onions, the shallot imparts a delicate flavor -- somewhere between garlic and onion. Shallots should not be browned, as they turn bitter. Three to four shallots are the equivalent of one medium-sized onion; they're rarely eaten alone, but are used regularly in cooking.
If the smell of these vegetables on your hands bothers you after you've been cooking with them, try rubbing your hands with a few drops of lemon juice, vinegar, or a little salt. If you want to clear your breath, eat some mint, a sprig of parsley, or a few celery leaves. If the smell of cooking onions bothers you, light a few wooden matches. The sulfur in the matches will take the odor away.
If you're like most people, you've probably noticed that peeling and chopping onions or shallots is the quickest way to begin shedding a few tears. The fresher your onions, the more of a workout your tear ducts will get. A few easy tricks can ease or prevent the problem:
Q. I live in Minnesota and am interested in growing herbs for culinary purposes to use in the winter. What culinary herbs grow well indoors?
A. Many culinary herbs are native to the Mediterranean area, so they need plenty of bright light (either from a south-facing window or a grow light) and soil that drains very well. Herbs that prefer slightly moist soil are basil, parsley, and cilantro. Herbs that like a soil that dries out between waterings include thyme, oregano, and rosemary. Fertilize once a month with a standard houseplant fertilizer. Once the plants are growing vigorously, start harvesting the leaves and pinch back the stems to keep the plants bushy.