The first time I saw a leek it was clamped to the tweed jacket of a Welshman on St David’s Day. (A leek worn on the lapel was the way the Welsh fighters id’d each other and distinguished themselves from their English enemies in some internecine war or other.). Not long after, I had cock-a-leekie soup, a culinary gift from the Scots — sauteed leeks, roasted chicken all wrapped up in a rich potato-thickened chicken stock. Add some Drambuie with supper and you’re near heaven.
Leek (Allium porrum) is a member of the onion and garlic family but with a much milder, greener taste and without the tears of chopped onions. They’re delicious sautéed with mushrooms and added to an omelet or quiche, stir-fried until soft with julienned carrots and dried tomatoes with lemon zest, in vegetable soup or creamed for a side with a roasted chicken or bit of roast beef. The key to cooking leeks is to clean them well; otherwise they’re gritty. They thrust out of the ground like scallions so their layered leaves pick the dirt up and trap it as they grow. To clean, slit them lengthwise, soak them briefly in a bowl of water, then rinse.
Leek is a cool-season vegetable that takes, depending on variety, as long as 120 days to mature. They are most tender when blanched while growing. This is accomplished (as with asparagus) by mounding earth or straw around them, leaving out the green tops to catch the sun and photosynthesize. If you’ve done this several times over the season, and haven’t eaten them all by fall, add a little more mulch as a blanket against heavy frost. Your reward will be fat fresh leeks in the middle of winter – very satisfying.
I’ve grown leeks from seed, and as a result planted what look like green threads while the rabbits looked on in greedy anticipation. (Row covers help a lot to save the leeks). More happily, I’ve bought leek starts, which are usually about the size a lamp cord, sometimes even a pencil. Easier to plant and by virtue of size more reliably resistant to soil-dwelling munchers. Until this year, I’ve not seen leek plants offered for fall planting. But I just got Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply catalogue (www.GrowOrganic.com), which offers Lancelot leeks for transplant now. I’m gonna order before they run out and hope I get a few in late winter or maybe early spring. Meanwhile, they should be coming into farmer’s market any day now.