Hardy soups, stews warm us in winter

When the fruit trees stand bare in the cold, hard earth, and lovely summer tomatoes are a fanciful memory, winter is in the air.

It's a season of intense contrasts, from vigorous outdoor activities like cross-country skiing to intimate conversations by a roaring fire. The body's inner clock is ticking away, keeping track of the shorter days and frosty nights.

We're also mindful of the fact that Christmas is one short week away. Most of us are still trying to gather as many special friends as possible around the table between now and New Year's. But it would be lovely to do so with as little stress on the spirit as possible.

Enter soups and stews. Winter, after all, is one-pot-cooking season. And because winter soups and stews provide as much nourishment for the soul as for the body, they fit the bill right now, providing both hearty flavor and ease of preparation. Even if you don't do all those correct presoup and stew things, like stockpiling leftover bones and vegetable trimmings in the freezer, you can still throw together a powerful pot.

At their most basic level, soup and stew preparations become a personal thing between the cook and the pot. They require a bit of mental energy — standing over the pot reflecting on life and all its components, including perhaps, all the winter vegetables that sing their sweetest song in the worst kind of weather.

Life's bound to look a little better after that.

Finally, the steaming pot makes it to the table and everyone is served. Spoons dip, and a universal slurp is heard 'round the kitchen. It's a lip-scorching experience, outrageous in its spontaneous effect, awakening senses and lifting spirits. The weather turns from miserably cold to delightfully brisk, and for a little while at least, the day's hard edges are soft and fuzzy.

One of the vegetables that Mother Nature presents to us this time of year is the leek. It truly embraces the season in which it thrives. Through the ages, leeks have been associated with cold-weather recipes: simmering stews and hearty soups. Like other members of the allium family, all it takes to tame their fiery flavor is a little bit of heat and time — two commodities that are in plentiful supply in most winter kitchens.

At a time of year when most vegetables are but a twinkle in the farmer's eye or nestled cozily in greenhouses waiting for the spring thaw, the leek is toughing out the winter in not-so-cozy fields.

Winter leeks were planted the previous May and can be harvested by September. But if left in the field, they will continue to grow into November. Once they've reached maturity, leeks will not get any bigger and store nicely right where they are — in the ground. Growers continue to harvest the crop as needed, until the plants go to seed the following May.

Nippy weather is one thing, but one would think that surviving the freezing temperatures generally associated with winter might be beyond even the heartiest leek. However, these plucky bulbs are rarely affected by a big freeze. The upper leaves may be burnt, but the plants won't die.

Harvesting leeks in winter is no easy task. The ground is cold and hard, and even the pros can't dig up more than three or four dozen an hour. Once the leeks are brought in from the field, every leek has to be cleaned thoroughly of dirt, with all traces of yellowed, frostbitten leaves removed.

Because all this work adds up to higher prices at the cash register, it's important to select the best leeks money can buy. Look for straight, cylindrical stalks with clean bases.

At home, wash the leeks thoroughly and cut off the roots. Then slice each leek once from the green end almost to the base. Fan the two sections apart and pass the leek through running water to remove all the grit that has accumulated.

Try the following recipes for soups and stews using winter leeks.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at janrd@proaxis.com.

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