Cooking, like painting or music, is often about creating contrasts of light and shade. A great painting like Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes uses light and dark tones to convey and contrast the battle of good over evil and the passage of life into death.
In the kitchen, we have many foundation ingredients available to give us flavours that are light and delicate or bold and assertive – depending on the dish.
Often, without even a thought, we’ll fry an onion to start a sauce or braise because it’s what we’re used to. The onion has become the default in most preparations.
But onions are the heavy hitters of the allium family. They are the big flavours, the dark tones.
By contrast, the leek is sweet and soft, allowing other ingredients more of a voice in a dish. Leeks provide a broad, mellow and creamy body – more so than onions – to build upon without sacrificing that all-important oniony flavour.
If leeks are to be heard and not seen, finely slice or dice them and they’ll all but disappear. Cut in chunks in a slow braise like beef cheeks and they’ll slip behind the flavours of the dark meat like the folds of a Caravaggio curtain.
BAKED HAM AND LEEK ROLLS
This simple recipe relies on the quality of the ham. Try and get the best you can find, sliced off the leg.
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Throw in leek rounds to blanch for 2 minutes. Drain well and scatter on a tray to cool. Place ricotta, half cup Parmesan, cooled blanched leeks and nutmeg in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper and mix well. Place a couple of spoons of mixture on each ham slice and roll it up making sure to tuck in the sides to seal each roll. Place ham rolls side by side in an oven dish. Spoon olive oil on top and sprinkle with remaining grated Parmesan. Bake in a preheated 140C oven for 25 minutes. Meanwhile bring a small pot of salted water to the boil and blanch matchstick-sized leeks for 30 seconds. Drain and dry well. Plate rolls and finish with blanched leeks on top. Serves 4 as a main course. Accompany with a green salad.
Wine: Pinot Grigio or Pinot Noir
LEEK, GREEN BEAN AND RISONE SOUP
Risone is rice-shaped pasta. It is widely available in supermarkets.
Heat olive oil in a soup pot. Gently simmer leek, eschalots, garlic and beans together until the leeks are transparent. Add passata and chicken stock along with a couple of good pinches of salt. Mix well and bring to the boil. Simmer for 2 minutes before adding risone pasta. Stir well and keep simmering according to the cooking time on the risone packet. Add parmesan crusts a couple of minutes before pasta is completely cooked. Season with more salt if necessary and freshly cracked pepper. Serve immediately with grated parmesan. Serves 4-6 as a first course.
Wine: Pinot Bianco or lightly wooded Chardonnay