Leeks are a member of the Allium family, making them related to garlic and onions but they have a much subtler, sweeter flavour. They can be used to enrich soups (think leek and potato soup) or stews and they partner well with potato or cheese (recipe later on). The edible part of the plant is a bundle of leaf sheaths, what we would call the stem or stalk. Historically many scientific names have been used for leeks but they are now all treated as cultivars of Allium ampeloprasum.
Leeks have been cultivated at least since the time of the ancient Egyptians and are depicted in surviving tomb paintings from that period. Dried specimens from archaeological sites in ancient Egypt as well as wall carvings and drawings, led Zohary and Hopf to conclude the leek was a part of the Egyptian diet from at least the second millennium BCE onwards. They also allude to surviving texts that show it had been also grown in Mesopotamia from the beginning of the second millennium BCE. The Romans considered the leek a superior vegetable and Emperor Nero got through so many he gained the nickname Porrophagus (leek eater). He is reported to have thought that eating leeks would improve the quality of his singing voice.
The leek is one of the national emblems of Wales worn along with the daffodil (in Welsh the daffodil is known as ‘Peter’s leek’, Cenhinen Bedr) on St David’s Day. According to one legend, King Cadwaladr of Gwynedd ordered his soldiers to identify themselves by wearing the vegetable on their helmets in an ancient battle against the Saxons that took place in a leek field. Shakespeare refers to the custom of wearing a leek as an ‘ancient tradition’ in Henry V. The 1985 and 1990 British £1 bear the design of a leek in a coronet, representing Wales. It is used in the cap badge of the Welsh Guards, a regiment within the Household Division of the British Army.
Start sowing early or late harvesting leeks in small seed-trays undercover in good compost March-April, 3cm apart. Plant out in June or July. It is a particular process: tease the leek (should be about 20cm tall), make a hole 15cmish deep with a pencil and lower the leek gently into it, being careful of the roots. Keep the plants about 15cm from neighbours, 30cm apart. Fill the holes with water – it is important to water baby leeks frequently.
If you are after a larger ratio of white to green, earth the leeks up a little to encourage this.
Harvest September-May (earlier for baby leeks, pick them the size of spring onions during the summer months). Leeks are good hungry gap fillers during winter as they can survive the cold frosty months.
Leave a few to flower through the late spring and into the summer for beauty and seed for the following season but be aware that they won’t replicate the original variety unless that is the only variety you are growing.
The variety I sowed this year was ‘Blue Lake’ bought from the Real Seeds Company and they did really well and I will be sowing them again next year. Other popular varieties are ‘King Richard’ (very early), ‘Monstruoso de Carentan’ (early), ‘D’Hiver de Saint-Victor’ (late), ‘Saint Victor’ (late) and ‘Hannibal’ (early).
I planted my leeks along with my celery and celeriac as I read once that they made good intercropping veg – they both like damp soil so I suspect it makes sense. Otherwise plant them where you are sowing roots or other onions or after potatoes is recommended.
Rust (orange or brown blotches on the leaves) can affect your harvest but usually only decoratively. Seaweed or comfrey feed helps prevent it but rotating your crops is the best way of minimising the problem.
Leeks have a mild, onion-like taste. In its raw state, the vegetable is crunchy and firm. The edible portions of the leek are the white base of the leaves (above the roots and stem base), the light green parts, and to a lesser extent the dark green parts of the leaves. One of the most popular uses is for adding flavor to stock. The dark green portion is usually discarded because it has a tough texture, but it can be sautéed or added to stock. Leeks are typically chopped into slices 5–10 mm thick. The slices have a tendency to fall apart, due to the layered structure of the leek.
To clean your harvest leeks, slit them along the length of the green part at intervals and immerse in cold water to tease out the soil.
Leeks are an excellent source of vitamin C as well as iron and fibre. They provide many of the health-giving benefits associated with garlic and onions, such as promoting the functioning of the blood and the heart.
One recipe I have been using our leeks in this year has been Homity Pie: a traditional British open pie. It is essentially a pastry case containing a mixture of potatoes and leeks with cheese. Its origins go back to Land Girl’s of World War II when the restrictions of rationing made it difficult to come up with a hearty dish to feed the land workers. At one point, the cheese ration was a mere ounce (28g) per person per week. Nowadays, we don’t need to worry about that and using plenty of cheese hides the vegetables from children allergic to green…
For the pastry:
– 150g plain flour – Pinch of salt – 75g unsalted butter – 1 egg yolk – 1 tbsp cold water
For the filling:
– 350g waxy potatoes, such as ‘Charlottes’ – 10g salted butter – 1 tbsp sunflower oil – 1 large onion, sliced – 1-2 leeks, sliced – 1 large garlic clove, diced – 175g grated cheddar cheese – 1tbsp chopped parsley – 1tbsp thyme leaves – 1 tbsp double cream – Salt and pepper – 3tbsp breadcrumbs – 3tbsp grated parmesan cheese
Make the pastry: In a large bowl, add the flour, salt and butter. Using your fingertips, mix the ingredients together until they resemble fine breadcrumbs. Make a well in the centre and add the egg yolk and the dash of cold water. Using a wooden spoon, bring the ingredients together until they start to form a dough – if it is too dry add more water, too wet add more flour. Once you have made a dough, using your hands, knead it together into a ball. Put to one side while you make the filling.
Preheat the oven 200C. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Scrub the potatoes and cut them into 2cm pieces and place in the boiling water and leave until cooked through. Drain and set to one side to cool.
Put the butter and oil in a frying pan and add the onion and leek, frying until soft and tender before stirring in the diced garlic and removing from the heat.
In a VERY large bowl, add the potatoes and contents from the frying pan, mixing together with the grated cheddar cheese, parsley, thyme and double cream. Season with salt and pepper.
Line a 20cm tin with baking parchment. Remove the parchment and place the pastry in the centre. Roll it out with a rolling pin so that it is a large circle. Place it inside the tin so that the pastry is evenly going up the sides of the tin halfway all around. Scrape the filling into the pastry case, smoothing down the top. Mix the breadcrumbs and parmesan together and sprinkle over the top.
Cook in the oven for 40 minutes until the pastry is cooked and the top is golden brown. Leave to stand for 5-10 minutes before serving with a leafy salad.