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Leeks suggest flavors of spring

The Baltimore Sun

Every once in a while, you cook a dish that captures the essence of the season. That happened to me recently when I made tarragon chicken breasts with leeks.

The leeks turned an appetizing pale-green color. The chicken turned out plump and white. And the pan sauce, made with chicken stock and flavored with a shot of lemon juice and tarragon, was soft and delicate. This dish looked and tasted like spring.

I was so taken with the dish that a few days later I picked up The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper, the cookbook from which the recipe had come, and telephoned its author. Her name is Lynne Rossetto Kasper.

For a few moments we spoke Kasper to Kasper. We established that we were not related. She grew up in an Italian home. Her husband, Frank Kasper, has been told that his ancestors hail from Poland or from what is now the Czech Republic. My forebears, I have been told, come from southern Germany.

We also established that we both love leeks.

"They are lovely. They convey the gentleness of spring," she said.

"This is the time of year when I think of leeks ... from now through the summer," she continued. "After that, they get expensive."

She spoke to me from St. Paul, Minn., where she lives and where she hosts a national radio show, Splendid Table, named after her award-winning 1992 cookbook, a book on the food of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. The weather was not balmy in St. Paul. The five-day weather forecast contained four mentions of snow. Yet Kasper gushed with the enthusiasm of spring over the virtues of leeks.

"I will slice them and cook them in a small amount of liquid or olive oil until they are melting, then hit them with some fresh lemon," she said.

Kasper said she has even decorated with leeks.

"When we lived in Brussels, I took big bunches of leeks and put them in a big vase, with a little water in the bottom for the roots. I put them on a sideboard, and they looked fabulous. Then I would cook with them or freeze them."

"The Belgians would come in, look at the display, and I could see it in their faces. They would say, 'Oh, how attractive.' Then it would register that what they were looking at was leeks."

"I enjoyed that," Kasper said, "because the Belgians ... well, they can be a little stuffy."

The chicken-and-leeks dish that I raved about was contributed to Kasper's book by Jerry Traunfeld, a chef in Woodinville, Wash., who has written The Herbfarm Cookbook. "Jerry has a lovely touch," Kasper said, especially with herbs.

Several of the recipes in Kasper's new cookbook are contributions from chefs and from co-workers. Sally Swift, the managing producer of Kasper's radio show, is co-author.

One of the interesting features of the book is that it rates brands of packaged products, such as the chicken broth I used when cooking the leeks and chicken. Not only do the authors pick their preferred brands, but they also list brands that "did not make the cut."

If you list your favorites, Kasper said, readers also want to know the names of other products you tasted.

We quickly touched on some other points made in the book. Authentic pesto sauce, she said, should be made from the leaves of short basil plants, ones that are only 6 to 9 inches high. The leaves of bigger plants have a harsh anise flavor, she said.

Pasta water, she said, should be so heavily salted that it tastes like seawater. Salted water improves the flavor of the pasta, said Kasper. Because pasta does not absorb salt after it is cooked, it is smarter to put the salt in the cooking water rather than to apply it at the table with a salt shaker.

But eventually we got back to leeks, their fresh flavor and their verdant delights.

"Leeks," she said, summing up, "taste green."

See Rob Kasper each Wednesday on ABC2/WMAR-TV's News at Noon.

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