Leeks: the subtle onion

Leeks in the snow
(Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

Leeks in the snow (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

Leeks add their distinctive, delicate taste to soups, quiches, omelets, frittatas, stir-fries, casseroles and other hot dishes. But they shine when used raw in salads. If you haven’t yet tried cooking them, it’s high time to enjoy their sweet and subtle touch.

Leeks need a long growing season and mature in our North Country in late fall. In warmer climates, they’re harvested in the winter. That’s why they’re most abundant from late fall to early spring, making them a great winter vegetable.

Leeks look like large scallions; like onions, they have many layers and a white root end that flows into green, tightly wrapped, flat leaves. They should be about an inch in diameter and about a foot long, bright white on the bottom part near the root and straight, thick, crisp dark green leaves. Avoid leeks that are wilted, yellow, brown, or slimy. Very large ones can be tough and fibrous.

A relative newcomer to America, leeks have a long history in Europe and Asia. They’re native to a large region stretching from the Mediterranean to India, where they’ve been cultivated for over 3,000 years. During their exodus from Egypt, the Jews complained of the lack of leeks and garlic to season their food. Today leeks are customarily served at the Jewish New Year festival, Rosh Hashanah.

Greek and Roman historians mention leeks, which were thought to be good for the throat and voice. The Romans introduced leeks to northern Europe, where they could tolerate cool weather and grew well. They eventually became the national emblem of Wales, where leek broth or cawl is traditionally eaten on St. David’s Day, March 1st to commemorate King Cadwallader’s victory over the Saxons in 640 AD. The traditional soup, made with meat and root vegetables, is a great warm-up on wintry days.

Leeks are often used to add flavor to broths, stews, and soups. The most famous leek dish is Vichyssoise, a cold pureed leek and potato soup first served in New York City’s Ritz Carlton Hotel by French chef Louis Diat. In addition to soup, their subtle, sweet flavor has graced many traditional and innovative dishes.

Allium Porrum (leek) belongs to the allium family, which also includes garlic, onions, shallots and scallions. Compounds found in allium vegetables are known to protect against colorectal and prostate cancers. While garlic and onions contain higher concentrations of these compounds, leeks are also a good source, and their milder, sweeter taste means that you can eat more of them. Allium vegetables are also good for the heart, lowering blood pressure and reducing LDL and total cholesterol while raising HDL, the “good cholesterol” levels.

Leeks are an excellent source of the minerals manganese and iron, fiber, and vitamin C as well as a good source of vitamin B6 and folate. Taken together, these nutrients help to stabilize blood sugar levels. An excellent diet food, one cup of raw chopped leeks contains 57 calories.

To store leeks you’ve bought at the farmers’ market or supermarket, trim the tough green leaves, wrap them loosely and place in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. You don’t want them to dry out, but wrapping them too tightly in plastic will promote rot. Do not wash until ready to use.

To prepare them for cooking, cut off the root and the tough green leaves. Use the bottom of the leek near the root and stem that are white or light green. Cut them in half lengthwise and rinse under running water to remove the sand that is often caught between the layers. Slice them crosswise, place in a colander and rinse again. Discard the dark green leaves; they are tough and fibrous.

Finely chopped leeks are great in salads. Add them to salads of fresh greens. During this time of year when most of our lettuce comes from South America and California, leeks can make a great alternative to green leaf salad.

Simple Leek and Apple Salad

Ingredients:

1 leek

2 teaspoons salt

1 apple

1 Tablespoon plain yogurt

1 Tablespoon sour cream

1/2 cup walnut or pecan halves, optional

Directions:

Cut leeks in half lengthwise. Rinse to remove sand, then slice across in 1/4” – 1/2″ slices. Place sliced leeks in colander and mix with the salt. Leave for 30 – 60 minutes, then rinse to remove excess salt and transfer to serving bowl.

Core and chop one unpeeled apple, and add to the bowl with leeks. Stir in the yogurt and sour cream.

If desired, toast nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat for two to three minutes, or until fragrant. Use as garnish.

Serves two to three.

Leek and pepper salad

Ingredients:

2 leeks

2 eggs

1 red bell pepper

1 yellow bell pepper

1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 Tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon Dijon style mustard

Directions:

Cut leeks in half lengthwise, then slice across. Place sliced leeks in colander, wash thoroughly under running water, and mix with the salt. Leave for 15 to 30 minutes, and rinse.

In the meantime, cook the eggs until hard boiled, about 7 minutes. Peel and chop the eggs. Wash, seed, and slice the peppers thinly. Blend the dressing ingredients (oil, lemon juice and mustard) together in a small bowl.

Place vegetables, diced hard cooked egg, and dressing in salad bowl; stir to combine.

Serves four.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com, yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook as Author Yvona Fast.

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