A Cook's Guide to Choosing and Preparing Leeks
It's time to get to know the lankiest member of the onion family.
If you haven't already, we think it's high time you consider the leek: The lankiest member of the onion family has a mild onion flavor that verges towards sweet, and they're so delicious. What's more, the entire vegetable is edible, all the way from its roots through its handsome white base and on to the dark green leek leaves. For all of these reasons, we're making a case for eating leeks, and to help you add them to more of your meals, we're explaining how to choose, wash, store, and put them to use in the kitchen. Along the way, we'll explain why leeks are more expensive than onions (at least here in the United States).
First and foremost, when is leek season? In supermarkets, leeks are always in season (which is a good thing), but if you prefer to shop at a farmers' market, you will see the first local leek crops appearing in summer, extending through late autumn, depending on the cultivar. So-called early leeks are ready for harvest after just a couple of months in-ground, while larger, hardy leeks take longer to mature and tolerate frost very well. You'll see those towards the end of the growing year at market.
Unlike their round onion cousins, leeks' leaves (called "flags") do not wither as the plant matures. Instead, the top growth stays a rich green. The slender white shaft of a leek (really a mass of sheathed leaves) is created by a laborious growing technique called mounding: Soil is pushed up around the leeks to keep the lower part out of the light, and effectively blanched. In a reverse-method of blanching leeks, they can also be planted in trough-like depressions that the grower fills in as the leeks mature.This labor-intensive growing method is one reason why leeks are expensive, compared with onions. But if travel to France and leeks are, pardon the pun, dirt cheap. That is partially the result of EU subsidies, but also down to demand and familiarity. Unlike in parts of Europe, leeks are still not an everyday vegetable for most people in the U.S., and demand for them is lower, possibly because their lavish green tops are perceived as useless (they are in fact delectable).
How to Choose and Store Leeks
Choose leeks that feel firm. If their leaves are very wilted, they can be refreshed by an hours-long soak in a basin of cool water. Another option is to stand them in a large jug filled to the brim with water until revived. When you bring them home from the market, be sure to wrap them well, and keep them in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator.
How to Prep Leeks
All that mounding can lead to sand sneaking in-between the leek layers. Grit tends to lodge close to where the white meets the green branching growth. To wash leeks, slit them lengthwise and soak and slosh in a large bowl of water, using your fingers to separate leek layers. The sand will soon drop out.
How to Cook with Leeks
Like onions, leeks add body to dishes that are built in layers of flavor with other aromatic vegetables like carrots and celery: Use leeks for ragu or Bolognese sauces, or else put them to work in stews, braises, and soups. To add richness to an already good onion soup, combine leeks with the onions. The silky texture of cooked leeks is luxurious: Slender leeks can be cooked whole to make classic bistro fare like a leek vinaigrette. To enjoy the leaves of leeks, cook them gently in good olive oil until they have a melting texture. Plop the leafy mass atop a slice of toasted sourdough rubbed with garlic and you have a memorably good lunch. If you chance upon leeks with their roots still attached, go daredevil and deep-fry the cleaned root mass. You will be very happily surprised by their juicy crunch and assertive onion flavor.
Try Growing Leeks at Home
If you have the garden space, growing your own leeks is very rewarding (and affordable). Plant out the seedlings in early spring, and begin harvesting early cultivars in mid-summer. An unexpected bonus is that if leeks are not pulled, they will produce highly attractive, lilac blooms that seem to be irresistible to pollinators—they are, after all, members of the Allium family, whose ornamental flowers are famous.
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