I have been a fan of leeks for a long time. I feel like they don’t get a whole lot of the culinary spotlight, being upstaged somewhat by their more popular cousin garlic, and their even more commonly available relative, the onion. I always like to recommend them to people who want some onion flavor without the breath-killing sulfur compounds that regular onions contain. So this week I am going to bring leeks a little more into the forefront, and maybe inspire some of you out there who haven’t given them a try to do so in the future.
Leeks have a long and widespread history. While its exact origins are unknown, it is thought to be native to Central Asia, and was spread to other cultures throughout the millennia. Traces of leeks have been discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs, where writings have revealed it was used for treating throat conditions. The leek also found popularity in the Roman Empire, particularly with the Emperor Nero, who believed that the consumption of leeks improved the strength of his singing voice. And while it is found in cuisines virtually all over the world today, it probably has the greatest cultural significance in Wales, where it holds the honor of being the country’s national symbol, in the same way as the rose does in England or the thistle in Scotland. Its fame apparently dates back to 1620, when the Welsh won a battle against the Saxon armies, where the Welsh soldiers marked themselves by wearing leeks on their helmets. Truly. You can’t make this stuff up. It has even been included on versions of the British one pound coin.
So what makes the Allium Ampeloprasum so popular? Well, it turns out our ancestors weren’t completely off base about them being good for you. Aside from promoting the good health of the throat, leeks are also rich in folate, polyphenols and vitamin B6, and are key in maintaining cardiovascular health. They are also high in copper, iron and manganese, and provide almost thirty percent of the daily recommended allowance of vitamin K. So there is no denying that eating leeks does a body good. And one of the reasons that the vegetable spread so far is its relative hardiness. While the plant is started inside and then transferred outdoors in the spring, once it is settled most varieties of leeks can usually withstand moderate winters. And they can be cultivated to any size the grower chooses. If left on their own, they will produce rather thin, scallion-sized cluster. But thinning out early on will produce the larger, more singular plants we are accustomed to seeing in the supermarket.
Never eaten leeks before? Well there are a few things to know. They look like overgrown green onions, except there’s no “bulb” at the bottom. They can be cooked in practically any fashion that regular onions can, although the most common presentation is in soups, fried or even raw. They have a much milder flavor then regular onions, so anyone out there with concerns about offensive “after-breath” needn’t fret. Because leeks grow best in sandy soil, prepping whole leeks for cooking does involve some washing. Simply cut the end into slices (generally only the ends up to the bottom of the dark green area are consumed, as the tops can be a little tough) and place in a container and cover with water. after a few minutes, carefully lift the slices out and lay on a paper towel, the sand and any residual dirt will sink to the bottom of the container in the water. Now you are ready to cook and/or consume them in whatever way you please.
So that is the inside information on the leek. Its delicious, good for your heart (among other things) and pretty easy to prepare. So the next time you’re looking for an alternative to onions or garlic, remember the French and their Vichyssoise, or the Welsh and their…well, lots of dishes and grab some leeks!