As Europeans already know, you can lengthen your
harvest and pleasure your palate with . . .
by Mary Preus Hamilton
Tantalizing to the taste buds and easy to grow, the leek (
Allium porrum ) is all too frequently neglected by
gardeners in North America. In fact, I'd never even tasted
these onionlike morsels before I married an Englishman, but
now that I've been introduced to them, neither my garden
nor my kitchen is often without a goodly supply.
The leek has a rich history of admirers . . . dating back
at least to the Roman emperor Nero, and including the
English playwright Shakespeare . . . as well as a
respectable portion of the population of Wales, the country
which chose the vegetable as its national emblem (just as
Ireland's is the shamrock and England's the rose). This
internationally popular Allium is slightly milder
in flavor than its cousin the common yellow onion (which
makes it a welcome addition to any food from soup to salad)
and is relatively easy to grow (thanks largely to its
SEEDTIME . . .
Although it prefers rich, crumbly earth, "poor man's
asparagus" (as the French, who are among the most avid
leek-lovers, call it) can be grown in almost any soil and
almost any part of the country. There are a number of
varieties available, which tend to differ primarily in
size. The large types are best for purees, stews, and soups
(and can even be stuffed) . . . while the smaller specimens
are delicious when served in salads or cooked whole.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: A number of seed companies sell leeks,
including Burpee, Park, and Stokes. See page 26 for the
addresses of these and other firms.]
Leeks are very tolerant of frost and thus thrive in the
colder parts of the country as well as in more temperate
climes. In those areas where the winters are mild, they can
even be "stored" in the garden all through the cold months
and gathered as needed.
There are about as many ways to "rear" leeks as there are
gardeners. The bare-bones method involves simply putting
the seeds in the ground as soon as the soil is workable in
early spring. If your aim is to grow jumbo leeks, though,
you may want to start them indoors during the winter, and
then about March (be sure the seedlings have developed
second leaves) transplant them into your garden. A few
months or so after the seeds are sown, your crop should
have reached peak size for harvesting . . . but leeks are
edible at every stage of their development, so do go ahead
and pull a few whenever you have a yen for them.
The seeds should be planted about a quarter-inch deep and a
thumb's width apart. You'll need to thin them to some six
inches apart as they mature, but when you do so, take care
not to brush soil on the leaves of the growing stalks that
remain. And don't toss the culls over the back fence . . .
add them to that big salad you were thinking about having
Be sure to provide your seedlings with plenty of water (the
equivalent of at least an inch a week) and to weed the bed
regularly. Aside from such routine chores, about all you'll
have to do is wait till they're ready to eat . . . we've
found our leeks to be all but insect- and disease-free .
. . . AND HARVEST
As soon as the first sharp frost hits, your leeks will
pretty much cease to grow. If you live in a mild climate,
however, you can just leave them in the ground all winter .
. . piling a little mulch around them for protection during
especially chilly or frosty nights. Otherwise, it's best to
collect the vegetables and either set them in soil in a
greenhouse or root cellar, wrap them in plastic and pop
them into the refrigerator (where they'll keep for about
three weeks), or steam-blanch and freeze them. Whatever
method of storage you choose, you ought to be able to enjoy
your leek harvest for most of the winter . . . perhaps long
enough to try some of the following recipes.
LEEKS AU GRATIN
Here's an easy yet appetizing dish that's a favorite with
my family and our dinner guests. To make it, wash
6 leeks thoroughly, cut off the roots and the tough top
leaves, and slice the vegetables lengthwise (or chop them
into bite-sized chunks) into a skillet. Add just enough
boiling water to keep the pieces from sticking . . . cover
the pan . . . and let them simmer until they're tender,
about 15 minutes.
Now, arrange the cooked leeks in a shallow baking dish and
sprinkle them with 2 cups of freshly grated cheddar or
Italian cheese. Add sea salt (or powdered kelp, if you can
find it at an Oriental market or natural foods store) and
pepper to taste, then pop the casserole into a low oven
— about 300°F, but keep an eye on it —
until the cheese melts.
For a heartier dish, try adding tomato wedges, green
olives, tofu, or cooked ham . . . or perhaps simmering a
few stalks of celery with the leeks.
This is a traditional Scottish soup . . . in which a
surprising combination of dried apricots, prunes,
vegetables, and chicken produces a special taste treat.
Start by simmering a 3-pound stewing chicken in 3 quarts of
water with 4 peppercorns and 2 whole cloves. Cook the bird
for 1-1/2 to 2 hours, or until it's tender. Then bone it
and cut the meat into pieces.
Next, slice 6 leeks into inch-long sections, and add them
to the stock with 2 teaspoons of sea salt or kelp powder,
1/2 teaspoon of black pepper, 1/2 cup of raw brown rice, 10
prunes (pitted), and 10 dried apricot halves. (If you like,
you can also add 1/4 cup of chopped fresh parsley.) Let the
pot simmer for 30 to 45 minutes, until the rice is tender
and the flavors are blended. Then add the chicken pieces,
let them warm through, and serve up the soup.
This savory entrée —in which the country
goodness of eggs and milk is complemented by the brisk
flavors of leeks and bacon — is very nearly the
national dish of Wales. To whip one up, first line a piepan
with your favorite pastry, brush the shell with beaten egg,
and bake it for 5 minutes in a 425 °F oven. Meanwhile,
slice 8 medium leeks into bitesized pieces wand steam them
for about 10 minutes (don't forget to take the pie shell
out on time!) . . . drain them well . . . place them in the
crust . . . and add 4 slices of bacon (chopped). Beat 3
eggs with 2 cups of milk or cream, 1/2 teaspoon of kelp or
sea salt, and 1/8 teaspoon of nutmeg. Pour the egg mixture
over the bacon and leeks, and put the pan into a 350°F
oven for 10 minutes before turning the heat down to
325° and letting the pie continue to bake until the
filling has set (about 20 minutes more).
This hearty dish makes a delicious light dinner when served
with fresh greens or fruit salad.
If you're in the mood for an easy-to-prepare treat that
tastes as if you'd worked on it all day, serve leeks
marinated in a classic vinaigrette dressing. Just combine
1/2 cup of olive oil . . . 1/4 cup of wine vinegar (or good
cider vinegar) . . . 1 teaspoon each of minced fresh
tarragon, parsley, and chives . . . 1/4 teaspoon of paprika
or black pepper . . . and I teaspoon of sea salt or kelp.
Then cut 6 leeks into 4-inch lengths, steam them for about
10 minutes, transfer them to a serving dish, and pour the
dressing over them while they're still hot. Let the
vegetables marinate for at least 3 hours, then serve them
garnished with chopped herbs of your choice.
Of course, there are literally dozens of other ways to
prepare "poor man's asparagus" (many of which you'll
undoubtedly come up with yourself, once you're better
acquainted with these garden treasures). So if you're not
already growing them, plan to include a few in this year's
garden . . . and I'll bet this noble immigrant will become
a mainstay in your menus as it has in ours.
EDITOR'S NOTE: For further information about leeks,
including many more recipes and tips on harvesting your own
seeds, you might enjoy author Mary Hamilton's The Leek
Cookbook (Madrona Publishers, 1982, $5.95).
And for more ideas on cold-weather Allium
-eating, see the article on page 144.