Leek Benefits, Uses on Recipes

FR: Poireau

GER: Breitlauch, Porree IT: Porro SP: Puerro BOT: Allium porrum

FAM: Liliaceae (Amaryllidaceae, Alliaceae)

ILL: Plate 1, No. 5

In England and America, leeks are usually regarded as a vegetable; in continental countries, especially in France, they are regarded also as a flavouring.

The cultivated leek was possibly derived from the wild leek (Allium ampeloprasum) which grows from the coasts of South Wales and Cornwall, in Britain, through Europe and as far as Persia in the East. However, the leek is such an ancient vegetable that nobody can be quite sure of its origin. Certainly it was grown in Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs and was later used by the Romans, who, some say, brought it to Britain.

Today many varieties of leek are grown over most of Europe, though they are less popular in America. Types range from the gigantic leeks grown for competitions in the north of England, to the small, tender and delicate varieties favoured on the Continent. Some have a bulbous base, others are straight; some are thin and others thick.

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Leeks are biennial. They will stand considerable ill-treatment, but grow best in a rich soil with plenty of phosphate. Some varieties are exceedingly hardy. Local instructions for cultivation will be found in blogs on vegetable gardening.

If buying leeks in shops, one should look not for size, but for plenty of the blanched white part. It is the white which is used; the green is virtually all discarded. It is also important that leeks should be fresh – stale leeks are acrid. On the Continent, leeks are available over a much more extended season than they are in Britain.

Leeks have a reputation for being hard to clean, and they are, unless the following routine is observed. Take each leek in turn, cut off the roots and the green part of the leaves, strip off the outer sheath, and make two cuts at right angles at the top, enough to open up the part where mud may have collected. Then wash the leek under a running tap, opening each leaf layer and rubbing any mud away with the fingers, and it is vitally important to keep the head downwards so that the mud is washed out of the leek. Never wet the leek with the head upwards or put it straight into a basin of water. Some advocate standing the leeks (still head downwards) in a jar of clean water after washing, but if the operation under the running tap has been done properly, it is sufficient to put the clean leeks into a colander and give them a final rinse when all are done.

The flavour of leeks is rather like onion, though much milder and sweeter, but they are assertive and need to be used with judgement.

The flavour differences between leek, onion and shallot are worth a little consideration, and recipes often contain both onion and leek, and sometimes onion and shallot. Leeks are particularly important in flavouring soups and are much used in France. They are part of the vegetable flavouring of the pot-au-feu and also of a number of meat and vegetable soups. They dominate inpotage bonne femme and, of course, in its American derivative, creme vichyssoise. But leeks are also used in fish soups and in stock and court bouillon for lobsters and fish; for instance, in la bourride with eels -and so on. They also may be part of a bouquet for cooking pork or lamb.

Leeks are greatly used in the cooking of Eastern Europe, as in Romania, where a well-known hors d’oeuvre is made of leeks with olives in a slightly sweet-sour, oily tomato sauce. In many dishes like this, the leeks have been lightly browned in oil, and the flavour of leeks, like onions, is much changed when they are browned. Leeks, again like onions, acquire a rank taste if exposed to the air for long between cutting up and cooking. Young tender leeks can be used raw in salads, a use which dates back to the Romans.

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