Simmer some cozy food for body, soul

Winter's a season of intense contrasts — from vigorous, outdoor activities, such as cross-country skiing, to intimate conversations by a roaring fire.

And through it all, the body's inner clock is ticking away, keeping track of the shorter days and frosty nights. Indeed, it's been a chilly month to say the least, with one of the longest runs of below-freezing temperatures on record.

Well, you can sit around and shiver, or you can get thee into a kitchen and simmer up a pot of cozy food for the body and soul.

Of course, I have utmost confidence that all of you robust Oregon cooks have opted for the proactive alternative, so I'd like to share a few of my favorite nose-warming recipes to help get you through the remainder of this wacky season.

You'll notice that each one of these recipes features leeks. For centuries, the leek has found its way into the heartier offerings of cold-weather cuisine: simmering stews, bubbling soups and roasted side dishes. It's almost as if Mother Nature's answer to the teeth-chattering, bone-chilling conditions of the season is: "Life a little miserable? There, there, have a leek."

After all, leeks are at their best once they've spent a bit of time on the burner. Their tough and somewhat peppery nature turns mellow and delicate, contributing the sort of flavor backdrop that underpins a plethora of foods, from mashed potatoes and seafood chowders to roasted chicken.

The leeks you're finding in markets now most likely were planted last May. Some would have been harvested in September. Others would have been left in the field, where they continued to grow into November. Once they've reached maturity, leeks won't 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 spring.

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 rarely are affected by a big freeze. The upper leaves may be burned, but the plants won't die.

Harvesting leeks in winter is no easy task, however. The ground is cold and hard, and even the pros can't dig up more than three or four dozen per hour. Once 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 effort on the part of the grower 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 sturdy, relatively clean bases.

As the season heads into spring, be wary of leeks that are bulbous at the root ends or that have a long, pencil-thin stalk shooting up from the center of the otherwise flat leaves. Either situation is the result of harvesting after the plants have gotten too far along in their second spurt of growth. Such leeks will be woody, with less flavor.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks.

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