More northern gardeners should grow leeks. Leeks appreciate cool weather and are not intimidated by frost. As a matter of fact, their flavor is improved by frost, so there’s no rush to get them out of the ground. My husband dug our leeks earlier this week, well after we had several hard freezes (20F) and the leaves had dropped from most of the trees. And leeks are conducive to so many recipes that are best at this chilly time of year.
We first started growing leeks because of a mistake. I had asked someone to pick up a bunch of scallions at the grocery store, and they brought home a bunch of leeks. I had heard of leeks before, but I had never cooked with them, so I flipped through my cookbooks (pre-Internet) in search of a recipe that could be made with ingredients I had on hand. I came up with this:
3 large leeks
1 1/2 pounds potatoes — peeled and diced
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
3 cups chicken broth
pepper — to taste
salt — to taste
1 1/2 cups skim milk
3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley — (6 teaspoon dried)
3 ounces cheddar — grated
Cut the root end off the leeks. Cut the leaves off where they start to branch (see photo and caption). Slice lengthwise and then slice crosswise into 1/2″ pieces. Put these slices into a strainer or colander, and put the strainer into a large bowl. Fill the bowl with water. Lift the strainer up and down in the water to help clean the leeks. Leave them in the water while you peel the potatoes.
I use the French-fry cutting disk of my food processor to cut the potatoes instead of dicing them. It is much quicker, and the potatoes break down in the soup enough to fit on your spoon.
In non-stick large sauce pan, saute the potatoes and leeks in the butter for several minutes, stirring to prevent browning. Add broth, pepper and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20-30 min, till potatoes are tender.
Add milk gradually. Heat gently but do not allow to boil. Stir in parsley and cheese. I have to say it looks more appetizing if you use an orange cheese instead of a pale yellow one, but it will taste great in either case.
Recipe from Jane Brody’s Good Food Book, p. 322, with adaptations.
We liked this soup so much that we started growing leeks just so we could make it. Of course there are lots of classic leek recipes, such as Cock-a-Leekie and Vichyssoise.
How to grow leeks
Leeks are the first vegetable planted in the garden and the last one harvested. We (meaning someone in our family, but probably not me) start them indoors in the second half of February. For your own northern garden, figure two months before your last spring frost. We sow them in individual small cells. Once they sprout, make sure they get fertilized regularly with a weak solution of your favorite indoor plant fertilizer. You want them to grow both long and sturdy inside, so you can plant them deeply in the garden.
Plant them in your vegetable garden as soon as the soil can be worked. Note that this is not the same thing as as soon as the soil has thawed. You want the soil to have dried out enough so you’re not making mud pies. For us that winds up being early to mid-May, a couple of weeks before our last frost.
Your leek bed should be fully prepared before you plant, because you are not going to be messing with this bed again until harvest. Pull your weeds, incorporate organic matter, and make sure the soil is pleasantly moist, but not soggy or gummy. Now put two inches of hay on top of your prepared bed. (Straw would be even better, but we never have that. We can get old hay pretty easily.)Get your dibble and make a hole through the hay and into the soil for each leek seedling. We press the dibble into the ground right up to the handle. If you don’t have a dibble, you can use a hoe or rake handle, and push it in about ten inches (25cm). Then drop a seedling down the hole. That’s it. Make sure some of the leek is poking out of the hole. You want about two inches peeking out, so if your seedling is too short, take it back out and put some soil in the bottom of the hole until the leek can peek. Or if it’s obvious that your leek is short, don’t make the hole so deep. The part down in the hole will be the edible portion. The part peeking out of the hole will be the leaves. The hay keeps the weeds down and the soil moist. The hole will gradually fill in as the season progresses.
The leeks are pretty much ignored until it’s time to harvest them. As I said, it’s one of the last things we do. You don’t have to dig them all at once. Just dig as many leeks as you think you need for your recipe, being careful not to slice into them. (We use a garden fork.) You do want to dig them all before the ground freezes solid. One time we forgot, and had to just about chisel them out of the ground. They were kind of slimy on the outside when they thawed, too, though the centers were still good.
If you have a root cellar or a pretty darn cold basement (the kind where you have to take precautions to keep your pipes from freezing), consider digging them all up and storing them down there. It’s a heck of a lot more pleasant to go down to the basement than to trudge through two inches of snow and a biting wind to fork them out of close-to-freezing earth. See the resources below for details.
Leeks | DoItYourself.com – good overview for the home grower, including southern growing methods
Stocking the Root Cellar – general principles on cold storage, but not much on leeks
Commercial Leek Production – precise growing and harvesting instructions
Planting Leeks at Beside the Stream – another cold climate gardener’s planting method
Foiled Again by the Elusive Leek – Anne Raver can’t grow leeks, but she talks to experts who can.
Leek Recipes – a big long list.