Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Leeks

It’s a wonder I like leeks at all. The vegetable was a critical component of my classical, and fairly rigorous (read: French chefs yelling at you), culinary education. My fellow students and I meticulously cleaned a lot of leeks, hands numb and red from cold water, to ensure we got every last little grain of sand out of all the layers of the vegetable. There would be hell to pay if Chef found grit. Throwing away leek greens was also a major no-no – they were saved in large plastic boxes in a special fridge, designated principally for saving vegetable scraps for stock making. It wouldn’t be pretty if Chef found leek greens in the compost bin – or god forbid, the garbage!

I also tried my hand at growing leeks in my little Brooklyn garden plot, which was a disaster – unbeknownst to me at the time, leeks are a bit more labor intensive than their onion and garlic relatives. My garden efforts were rewarded with teeny tiny stalks that looked more like (pathetic) green onions than leeks. But I’m undeterred in my devotion to the vegetable, even amidst my leek-related tribulations, because I love their culinary versatility and their sweet, subtle flavor. 

A Brief History

Leeks, part of the pungent Allium family (of which garlic and onions are members), are native to North Africa and Eurasia. They were probably first cultivated by the Egyptians, who liked leeks so much they painted their tombs with images of them. (And the so-called “Middle Eastern Leek” is still enjoyed today in…the Middle East). The Ancient Greeks and Romans were also big leek lovers; Romans viewed the leek as a more refined version of its onion and garlic cousins (I totally agree). Food historian Alan Davidson notes that Roman Emperor Nero was particularly fond of leeks because he thought that the vegetable improved his singing voice. Patrick Fass, in his book Around the Roman Table, translated several ancient Roman recipes, many of which prominently include leeks. 

The Romans may have been responsible for the introduction of the leek to Great Britain, where it has become one of the national symbols of Wales. Legend has it that St. David (the patron saint of Wales) told the Welsh to wear leeks on their helmets to distinguish themselves from their Saxon foes during combat; the battle itself, in 640 CE, is said to have taken place in a field of leeks. Davidson notes that this story is probably bogus, as at the time the word leac was a general term for many members of the Allium family (e.g., gar-leac) and there is little evidence that the true leek made it to the British Isles that early. Regardless of the dubious nature of the Welsh-wear-leeks-in-battle story, soldiers in Welsh regiments still eat a raw leek on St. David’s Day to commemorate the victory over the Saxons, while members of the Welsh public frequently wear leek pieces on their lapels on that day.

Factual Nibbles

  • There is an internet meme that revolves around leeks – “Leekspin” or “Loituma Girl” is a looped animation of a female anime character spinning a leek while singing a Finnish folk song. I am not making this up.
  • Leeks are referenced in Shakespeare (Henry V) and in the Bible. In Numbers (11:5 ) the veggie is described as one of the fruits and vegetables the Jews longed for while in the desert, in addition to cucumbers, melons, onions and garlic.
  • Leek growing is a competitive sport in some places, including in coal-mining regions of England, as the “manure from the pit-ponies” was a perfect growing medium for the veggies. Here’s a picture of one of the world’s largest leeks from Great Britain that may or may not be fake.
  • Leeks are toxic to dogs and cats, so keep them (and their Allium relatives) away from your furry friends!

Cultivation

Oh, those crazy botanists. They are constantly fooling around with scientific names for all of our favorite veggies, and leeks are no exception. Leeks are in the Allium (onion) genus, in the Amaryllidaceae (Amaryllis) family (though apparently this is up for botanical debate).
Allium ampeloprasum is the scientific name for the wild leek, a cultivar of which we are familiar with as “elephant garlic” (Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum). Common leeks are Allium ampeloprasum var. porrum (formerly A. porrum), while the Middle Eastern variety, likely the more ancient of the two varietals (probably descended from the Egyptian leek), is Allium ampeloprasum var. kurrat (formerly A. kurrat). (Kurrat is Arabic for “leek.”) The beautiful and tasty Allium family includes not just leeks, onions and garlic, but also shallots, ramps, scallions, chives and a number of ornamentals grown for their unique globe-shaped flower heads.

The straight, white stem of the common leek is formed by blanching – soil is mounded up around the stem (or a collar placed around it) to keep sunlight from turning it green. This process also helps to compress the leek stem, making it that nice cylindrical shape that we leek-lovers are so fond of. Most leek varieties have a very long growing season and can grow up to two feet tall (or larger), with average stem diameters of two or three inches.

Seasonality

Leeks are very cold tolerant – some varieties can withstand multiple frosts over an entire winter – making them an excellent cold-weather vegetable that can be harvested into the following spring. However, there are also leek varieties that are bred for harvest in the summer, making yummy leeks available year-round.  

Environmental Impact

The good news is that leeks do not appear on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. The bad news is that a lot of pesticides are approved for use on leeks. (Here’s a list of pesticides used on leeks grown in California.) If you are concerned about pesticide use, buy locally and ask your farmer about  pesticide usage.

Characteristics

Common leeks kind of look like a giant scallion – they have a straight, white stem that gradually becomes lighter green, making way to the dark, almost blue-green of the top leaves. Kurrat, the so-called “Middle Eastern” leek, supposedly has less tough green, outer leaves (which are frequently eaten, unlike the leaves of the common leek), although I have never seen a kurrat. (Have you?)

What to look for

Seek out leeks on the smaller side – one to two inches in stem diameter, three inches tops. Larger leeks are OK, but they tend to get woody and a bit tough. Leek greens should be a very dark green with no yellowing or wilted spots. The white stem should be very white and firm with no black, mushy or discolored areas.

Nutrition and effects on the body

Leeks are very high in vitamins A and K and are good sources of vitamin B6, folate, iron, calcium and manganese. They are also high in fiber and low in calories. Leeks are also a mild diuretic (there is even a “leek soup diet” that supposedly helps with weight loss) and are high in antioxidant polyphenols. Allium family members in general have been linked to improved cardiovascular health and are used as a remedy for inflammation.

What to Do with It

Like their Allium brethren, leeks are remarkably versatile in the kitchen. They have a mild
onion-y, sweet flavor that lend themselves to all sorts of dishes.

Cooking

Most recipes call for only the “white and light green parts” of the vegetable, but the dark green leaves can be saved to use in stock making (veggie, beef, chicken, etc.). Leek stems can be braised, grilled, roasted, fried (or “frizzled”), steamed, sautéed and used raw in salads – they are a lot less shocking to the palate than raw onions. Toss leeks into your favorite soups or stews in place of onions for a more delicate flavor. Leeks pair beautifully with dairy products (think butter, cream and cheese), and with eggs, chicken, potatoes, fish and the leeks’ Allium relatives (chives, garlic).

One of the most famous leek dishes – the chilled potato and leek soup vichyssoise, was invented in New York by a French chef. Another famous leek-based dish, the Scottish cock-a-leekie soup, is traditionally made with chicken, leeks and prunes. Leeks vinaigrette is another renowned dish highlighting the beauty and delicacy of the vegetable. And here is an interesting leek-and-matzo casserole for Passover that has Egyptian origins – fitting, given the leek’s history.

Pro tips

The thing about preparing leeks is that they are really dirty, with gritty bits of sand frequently hidden in the layers that make up the stems. They have to be cleaned very thoroughly. David Lebovitz has a good description of how to clean leeks, or here is a great video that shows two different techniques for cleaning the veggie.

Storage

Leeks will keep in your veggie drawer, wrapped in a paper towel, for at least a week. Don’t wash leeks before you refrigerate them, as this accelerates their decline.


Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation

Here is a fun recipe for quick pickled leeks that will keep for up to two weeks in the fridge. You can also pickle leek scapes (the flower stalk of the leek). And here is a yummy-looking pear-and-leek lacto-fermented chutney! Leeks can also be frozen successfully – here’s a good tutorial with pictures.

Recipe

Jessie’s Creamed Leeks

I went to a dinner party a couple of years ago at my friend Jessie’s house (who incidentally used to work on the GRACE energy team). I can’t remember a single thing about the party (too much red wine, methinks) except the delicious creamed leeks she served as a side dish. I talked to Jessie the other day and she has no recollection of the leeks or the recipe, so I’ve done my best to recreate it here. They are fantastic served with steak, roasted chicken or as a bed for seared scallops, or even piled on top of toasted bread slices as a crostini topping. They would also be divine stirred into a frittata or scrambled eggs. There is quite a bit of butter in this recipe – for that reason, feel free to omit the cream. If you don’t have access to freshly ground nutmeg (i.e., nutmeg that you grate yourself), omit it. (Jarred nutmeg is just too overpowering for this delicate dish.) Chicken or vegetable stock (or broth) is your best bet, but I’ve successfully used water, too.

Ingredients:
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
6 medium leeks (stems no more than 2 inches in diameter)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
¼ ; cup low-sodium stock or broth or water
1 tablespoon heavy cream
Freshly grated nutmeg (optional, see introduction above)
Squeeze of lemon

Method:
1. Wash and trim the leeks (as described in the Pro Tip section, above), discarding (or reserving for stock) the dark green leaves. (You’ll only be using the white and light green portion of the leeks for this recipe.) Cut each leek stalk in half lengthwise, then cut the trimmed leeks into half-circles about ¼ ; inch thick.

3. In a large, heavy bottomed sauté pan set over medium heat, add the butter and the extra virgin olive oil. When the butter has just melted, add the leeks, a pinch of salt and a grinding of pepper and stir to coat. Reduce heat to low and sweat the leeks (this means cooking them over fairly low heat so they soften without browning), cooking and stirring for 7-8 minutes.

4. Add the stock or water, cover the pan, and continue cooking on low heat for another 20-25 minutes, or until all of the stock has been absorbed and the leeks are very, very tender. Meltingly tender.

5. Stir in the cream, a grating of fresh nutmeg (optional) and a tiny squeeze of lemon. Taste and correct for salt and pepper. Remove from heat and serve. 

(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

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