(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 13, 2008. Your comments are welcome but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Leeks - history
The leek is the national vegetable of Wales (how is that for a piece of trivia). There is a legend that in the battle against the Saxons in the year 640 AD, the Welsh were ordered by King Cadwaller to wear leeks in their hats to distinguish themselves from the enemy. The battle is also said to have taken place in a field full of leeks (handy!!). To commemorate this event the Welsh wear leek on St. David's day (March 1st) and a leek broth known as cawl is traditionally eaten on this day, ensuring health and good fortune for the wearer. A bundle of leeks is displayed on the Welsh Coat of Arms and at every international Welsh rugby match leeks are worn.
It is also said that leeks were revered by the druids for their medicinal purposes, and there is a legend that a maiden who placed a leek under her pillow at night would be able to see what her future husband's face looked like.....
Leeks - to grow
Leeks (Allium porrum) will tolerate many soil types but they grow best in a moist, light but well manured soil. However, do not plant your leeks in a freshly manured bed as this will result in too much leaf growth. They are not fussy about harvest time, and can be left in the ground for quite some time to be harvested as needed. Because of this they make an excellent vegetable for a garden-grower.
They grow easily from seeds, which have a high germination rate (germination time is 2-3 weeks). The seeds will keep for several years too, so this makes for a very economical crop. They can be sown in a seedbed in early spring to be transplanted in mid-summer, or sown in place after all danger of frost is past. After transplanting to their permanent position leek seedlings will benefit from frequent watering. Once they have started growing vigorously it is best to keep the leaf tips trimmed. By filling in soil around the plant as it grows the desirable trait known as ‘blanching' is achieved, which increases the portion of the plant that is edible (the white part). By mid-autumn many plants will be ready to harvest, and harvest can continue throughout the winter; the plants will tolerate a light frost. They are best grown when temperatures are between 55 and 75 degrees F.
Leeks - to eat
Leeks are related to onions but have a subtler, sweeter flavor that will readily combine with other ingredients without overwhelming them. They are a good source of Vitamin C, Iron and Fiber and have the same properties associated with onions and garlic as being good for heart and blood. Therefore they are a healthy diet choice!
Important when using leeks in cooking is to clean them well, since they often contain sandy residue.
To clean, trim the greener part of the leaves and cut off the roots. If there's any dried or yellowed skin around the white base, trim that off.
Hold the leek leafy side down. Insert a sharp knife through the leek about 2 inches from the root and slice down through the leaves. Rotate about a quarter turn and repeat to split the leek open while holding the bundle together. Rinse well under cool water.
The most well-known recipe using leeks is the classic French soup ‘Vichysoisse' recipes for which can be found in any cookbook. But let me add a personal favorite.
Leek and Brie Tartlets
12 ounces puff pastry.
4 leeks, washed and finely sliced
2 tablespoons butter
10 ounces of brie cheese
some fresh thyme and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
Roll out the pastry to fit 4 tartlet tins.
Heat the butter in a pan, and gently sauté the leeks until very soft, be careful not to let them get too brown.
Add the stripped leaves of some fresh thyme and a little freshly ground black pepper to the leeks and set aside to cool slightly.
Meanwhile slice the brie into rough slices.
Arrange the leek mixture and brie slices evenly into each tartlet shell and bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until the pastry is cooked through and has some good colour.