Whether pulled from yard or produce bin, leeks are four-season wonder




A leek is a beautiful thing, sensuous, silky and sleek.

If you know anything about leeks, you may know that the Welsh are said to have worn them in their helmets to identify themselves in a battle against Saxon invaders, fought in a leek field in 640 A.D. That, it is thought, is why the leek is a symbol of Wales today, and why the Welsh -- some Welsh -- will eat leeks on Saturday: March 1 is the feast day of their patron, St. David.

But we're here to make love with leeks, not war. Food love. And there's a lot to love about the leek: its playfully exaggerated scale, its delicate flavor and robust scent, its no-tears slicing. The way its green leaves fade to a white bottom, like a living color scale.

The Welsh weren't the first to tame the wild leek; it's been cultivated for thousands of years.

"The most esteemed leeks are those grown in Egypt," wrote Pliny, the first-century Roman. His contemporary, the Emperor Nero, ate so many leeks he was nicknamed Porophagus -- leek eater. The Roman name for leek was "porrum." Our word comes from the Anglo-Saxon "leac."

   
Listen to leeks

Tune in as food writer -- and illustrator -- Patricia Lowry and food editor Bob Batz Jr. talk leeks on this week's Dining In/Dining Out program at www.post-gazette.com/podcast.

   

Nero, "to improve his voice, used to eat leeks and oil every month, upon stated days, abstaining from every other kind of food, and not touching so much as a morsel of bread even," Pliny wrote.

Leeks may not improve your voice, but they are good for you, loaded with fiber, folic acid, calcium, vitamin C and the B vitamins. They're in the Allium family, along with onions and garlic, and have the same antioxidant, quercetin, that is thought to fight cancer.

Food historian William Woys Weaver has four leek beds in his Devon, Montgomery County, garden and eats leeks almost every day.

"Keeping a leek bed is plain common-sense economics," he writes in his 1997 book "Heirloom Vegetable Gardening," in which he traces the lineage of 280 varieties of vegetables. "When it is properly maintained, it will provide a constant supply all year long."

   
St. David's Day lunch

The Welsh do love their leeks, no doubt about it.

"Leeks figure in quite a few Welsh dishes," said Elizabeth Jeffries, a member of the St. David's Society of Pittsburgh, the Welsh nationality group that dates to at least 1882.

So we couldn't help but wonder: Why are there no leeks on the menu for Saturday's Daffodil Luncheon at Nevillewood? "The basic reason is the club doesn't particularly offer it," said luncheon chair Doris Davies.

To make up for the leek lack, she puts them in vases on some tables and daffodils, the Welsh national flower, on others.

"At the luncheon I'm sure you'll see people wearing leek pins," said Ms. Jeffries, who's visited Wales four times. "They do have roast lamb, which is a very Welsh thing to have."

In addition to Chicken Romano, Sole Anglais and Roasted Lamb, they'll also be serving Mixed Field Greens Salad with oranges and walnuts, Baked Stuffed Redskin Potatoes, Vegetable Medley and Warm Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce. The event is open to all; the cost is $25 and the deadline is today. Call Mrs. Davies at 412-851-9212.

And in June, look for the opening of the new Welsh Nationality Room at the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning.

-- Patricia Lowry

   

Summer leeks, harvested the same season they are planted, tend to be smaller than hardy leeks, which can be picked throughout the winter, so long as the dirt isn't deeply frozen, or the following spring.

One morning last week, Mindy Schwartz pushed aside snow and decaying leaves, sank a shovel into the earth and pulled up one of about 25 leeks that are wintering over at Garden Dreams, her urban farm in Wilkinsburg.

"It was like it had been in the freezer," she said. She washed it, sliced off some rings, caramelized them in butter and scrambled them with eggs. "It's the middle of February and I went out to the garden and harvested something and ate it. It was great. And we have 4 inches of perfectly good leek ready to go for the next meal."

Ms. Schwartz, who grows wholesale vegetable plants and keeps a large kitchen garden for family and friends, grows the leeks in trenches but doesn't bother with blanching -- that is, filling in the trenches and mounding up the dirt as they grow, to keep the stalks tender and white. So her leeks don't have as much white as commercially grown ones, but they're still pretty tasty in soups, omelets, quiches and more.

"They give a lot for the work they require," she said. "They don't take up a lot of space. They're versatile, they're pretty, they're sturdy. They're like the king of the garden in a way. And they have a great sound when you cut them. They're really crisp."

Ms. Schwartz already has started this year's leek seedlings in her basement. The variety she plants is Carentan, a hardy, fast-growing "old European favorite," according to her seed source, the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog.

Mr. Weaver is partial to the heirloom Musselburgh variety because his grandmother grew it and baked it in a leek, fig and fennel bulb pie. It's thought to be a descendant of a French leek called Gros-Court, a huge variety (about 13 inches in diameter!) cultivated by a market gardener near Paris, who found it on a farm near Rouen.

In the 1820s the French hybridizer Vilmorin-Andrieux used Gros-Court to develop several large varieties (including a parent of Carentan, dubbed Monstrueux de Carentan for its monstrous size). Mr. Weaver traces one of them to England, where it grew under the name London Flag, which also became one of the most widely cultivated leeks in America into the 1870s. A sister strain traveled to Edinburgh, where Scottish seedsmen in 1834 introduced the shorter, paler variety called Musselburgh, named for a coastal market town on the Firth of Forth.

The Seed Savers Exchange, to which Mr. Weaver has been a contributor, offers three heirloom varieties in its online catalog, www.seedsavers.org: the Giant Musselburgh, 9 to 15 inches long and 2 to 3 inches in diameter; the French-born Blue Solaize, with blue-colored leaves, a "beautifully magnificent variety" that overwinters well; and Prizetaker, an English variety also known as The Lyon, which can reach 36 inches in height with thick, tender white stalks.

Cultivating giant leeks is wildly popular in the northeast of England, where it rises (and falls) to the level of sport. In a tradition that began in the late 19th century among miners, men compete for cash prizes to grow the largest specimens, as shown in the 1997 made-for-British-TV comedy-drama "King Leek," in which one grower bets the family home on his leeks. Wives become "leek widows" when husbands sleep in their garden allotments for weeks before the show, guarding their leeks from knife-wielding competitors bent on destruction.

In Western Pennsylvania, locally grown (and normally sized) leeks are available at farmers markets during the growing season. Giant Eagle's leeks (organic only at their Market District stores, says buyer Ken Ondek) come from New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania spring through fall, but from California and Mexico this time of year.

The organic leeks at Whole Foods Market in East Liberty almost always come from a single source, Ralph's Greenhouse, the 60-acre Washington state farm of Ray de Vries. But for the next couple of months, says the store's Maryland-based vegetable buyer Mark Klueber, they'll come from California.

"Our February field wasn't big enough," said Mr. De Vries, whose e-mail handle is "leekking." Mostly he grows a variety he calls "Ralph's Own," named for his father, who began growing leeks on a small scale -- "maybe a half-acre" -- after retiring from dairy farming in 1980. Now almost the entire 60 acres of sandy, well-drained soil is planted in leeks. A medium-sized, hardy leek with a long white shank and dark green leaves, "Ralph's Own" is of unknown parentage, crossed many times by open pollination. He also grows Arkansas, Bandit, Lancia, Rissa, Rival and Tadorna.

"We use different varieties for different times of year," said Mr. de Vries, who took over the farm in 1988.

How does the leek king like his leeks? "For breakfast, lunch and dinner," he said. "In omelets for breakfast and soups and salads for lunch. And for dinner you cut them into wheels and steam them and put a little butter on them, or cheese. If I'm in a real hurry, I cut them into wheels, put a little olive oil on top and microwave them for five minutes." His wife, Becky, does most of the cooking, though, almost always using "roadkill leek" -- ones that Ray picks up after they hopped off the harvest truck.

"If you're a real die-hard for leeks, you cut the root ball off and put the roots in your salad, and chop the leaves into chunks and put them into your soup," he said. "I always say, you bought the whole thing, you should eat the whole thing."

More Americans are getting to know leeks, which Mr. De Vries said were a staple in his native Holland, where the family lived until he was 5.

"Leeks have kind of come into their own in the last 20 to 25 years," he said. "When I used to do demos in stores 20 years ago, people would say, 'What's a leek?'"

If you've never been a porophagus, a word of caution: Wash them well, especially if you're using the dark green leaves where soil can collect. I rinse them, then cut them according to the recipe directions and soak them in a bowl of cold water before draining and rinsing again.

I think of my Glaswegian great-grandfather when I make the Scottish favorite, Cock-a-Leekie Soup -- leeks in chicken stock, with or without an actual chicken. And I think of my German-speaking Alsatian grandmothers when I bake leeks in a quiche.

But after cooking leeks the same ways for 30 years, I was ready for something different and not dependent on eggs, cheese, milk and cream. Here are four recipes that fit that bill, including a new favorite: New World Leek and Sweet Potato Soup, a sweeter, more nutritious version of traditional potato-leek soup and the perfect no-cook end to a chill winter day.

What are you waiting for? Take a leek and get to work.


Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590. First Published February 28, 2008 5:00 AM




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