The Leek: A Noble Vegetable for All Seasons

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Photo by Fotolia/Maria Brzostowska
The leek is sort of like an onion, but is also called "the poor man's asparagus."

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 onion-like 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 frost-hardy nature).

Seed Time …

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.]

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. However,leeks are edible at every stage of their development, so do go ahead and pull a few whenever you have a yen for them.

Leek 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 for lunch.

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 Recipe
Cock-A-Leekie Recipe
Leek Pie Recipe
Leeks Vinaigrette Recipe

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.

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