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Leeks: the subtle onion

Leeks are amazingly versatile. (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

The trees are bare and snowflakes are blowing in the wind. Winter is on the way. One of the few things left to be harvested before the ground freezes are leeks.

These alliums add their distinctive, delicate flavor to all types of culinary delights — soups, stir-fries, salads, and egg dishes. If you haven’t yet tried cooking them, it’s time to enjoy their sweet and subtle touch.

Leeks require a long growing season and mature in our north country in late fall. In warmer climates, they’re harvested in the winter. This makes they’re most abundant from late fall to early spring, making them a great winter vegetable.

If you’re unfamiliar with them, they look like large scallions; like onions, they have many layers and a white bulb that flows into green, tightly wrapped, flat leaves. They should be about an inch in diameter and about a foot long, with bright white bulbs and straight, thick, crisp dark green leaves. Avoid leeks that are wilted, yellow, brown, or slimy. Bigger bulbs 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 dishes. Because leeks symbolize the desire for cutting off one’s enemies, they’re traditionally served at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year festival.

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 grew well since they tolerate cool weather. They eventually became the national emblem of Wales, where leek broth or cawl is traditionally eaten on St. David’s Day, March 1 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.

Allium Porrum (leek) belongs to the allium family, which also includes garlic, onions, shallots and scallions. Many 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. In addition, allium vegetables are good for the heart, lowering blood pressure and reducing LDL and total cholesterol while raising HDL, the “good cholesterol” levels.

Leeks are also 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. One cup of raw chopped leeks contains just 57 calories, so they’re great for dieters.

When you bring them home from the market, wrap loosely and store unwashed, untrimmed leeks 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.

To prepare them for cooking, cut off the root and the tough green leaves. Use the bulb and stem that are white or light green. Cut them in half lengthwise and rinse under running water to remove sand that is often caught between the layers. Now slice across, then place in a colander and rinse again.

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. They’re great added to an omelet or frittata; they’ll add flavor to broths, stews, and soups; and finely chopped raw leeks are great in salads. Leeks make a great alternative to green leaf salad in winter when most of our lettuce comes from South America and California.

Leek and

bacon quiche

Ingredients:

Either one pie crust for single-crust pie (homemade or store-bought), or potato crust

1 – 2 Tablespoons cooking oil or butter

2 medium potatoes, depending on size

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Peel or scrub potatoes.

Grate them coarsely (the food processor works well for this).

Combine with the oil and spread into the bottom and sides of 9-inch pie plate.

Bake at 400 degrees F for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside until ready to use.

Lower oven temperature to 350

Quiche:

2 slices bacon

1 – 2 leeks (about 2 – 3 cups, sliced)

2 eggs

1 / 2 teaspoon salt

3 / 4 cup milk or 1/2 cup cottage cheese

1 / 3 cup Monterey Jack cheese or Swiss cheese, grated

Directions:

Cook the bacon till crisp. Drain on paper towel and reserve. Drain off most of the fat in the pan.

Cut leeks in half lengthwise, then slice across. Place sliced leeks in a colander, wash thoroughly under running water. Drain and cook in the bacon drippings on medium-low heat for 8 to 10 minutes.

Beat eggs with salt. Beat in the milk or cottage cheese.

Line pie plate with pie crust or use potato crust (recipe above).

Spread the cooked leeks on top of the crust in the pie plate. Sprinkle with cheese and reserved crumbled bacon. Pour egg mixture over all. Bake at 350 degrees F until the eggs are set (about 40 minutes).

Serves 3 to 4. This goes well with a salad of mixed greens and warm crusty bread.

Leek and apple salad

This recipe has been a traditional winter salad staple in our family for generations.

Ingredients:

1 leek

2 teaspoons salt

1 apple

1 Tablespoon plain yogurt

1 Tablespoon sour cream

Optional: 1/2 cup walnuts

Optional: 1/2 cup minced fresh parsley

Directions:

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

Core and chop one unpeeled apple, and add. Stir in the yogurt, sour cream and nuts and/or parsley, if using.

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 yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook as Author Yvona Fast.