Leeks are a low-profile cousin of onions and garlic. It’s easy to dismiss them, but they are easy to grow at home, and they go really well in all kinds of slow food. Leeks have a sweet, oniony flavour - an “x-factor” that gives depth to many classic recipes.
My fondness for leeks is in some ways cultural. They’re one of the national symbols of Wales (but I reckon the red dragon looks better on the flag). Both my dad’s parents were born in Wales.
My cousin, Ruth Hughes, raises adorable black lambs at Argoed Fawr, a small farm near Machynlledd in Wales that’s been in our family for more than 400 years.
When my kids were at primary school they used to have an annual cultural food festival, and I would make a delicious leek tart to go with the Pakistani lamb dishes and Malaysian curries and rewena bread. (Some of my friends think Pakeha don’t have any cultural foods, but it’s not that hard if you use your imagination.)
Leeks are not hard to grow in a home garden. (Even I can do it.) They’re not a fast crop - they grow slowly, taking four or five months to get to a reasonable size. There are few pest problems. You just need to weed and feed them.
Your homegrown leeks probably won’t get as big as the ones in the supermarket. (There’s no doubt a good reason for that.) But giant leeks haven’t always been the norm. One recipe in my Welsh cookbook calls for “twelve large leeks” – and I bet they don’t mean 5cm diameter monsters!
Above: Leeks will just grow slowly in the garden until you harvest them. This photograph by Elizabeth Newton-Jackson. Photo at top of page by Dani Edwards.
It’s traditional to plant leeks in autumn and harvest them over the winter, but they can be grown all year round. Koanga have a couple of heritage leeks, and Kings Seeds also have a couple of different varieties.
The handy thing about leeks is that you can leave them in the ground until you need them. If you grow them over the summer they might start flowering, which is good for attracting beneficial insects to your garden, and you can save the seed. (And I think leek flowers are pretty, in a sculptural way.) Flowering leek stalks will be too tough to eat as a vegetable, but are still okay in a stockpot.
The hardest thing about growing leeks is planting all the fiddly little seedlings. Here’s a clever idea from my friend Deborah Brown, for getting two crops out of one planting. Deborah says when you harvest leeks, don’t pull the root out – leave it in the ground. She says: “What I did with the leeks was cut them just below ground level, and new plants sprouted from the remaining roots. Some of the ones that had gone to seed in the garden had re-sprouted this way, so I gave it a go with the others when harvesting, and it worked. They grew three or four more leeks to each lot of roots. Not big fat ones, but nice little ones, so well worth it - and heaps better than transplanting all those tiny seedings.”
Four recipes with leeks
Leeks are important in a chicken broth – here’s a link to a recipe. You can also use leeks instead of onions in many recipes. Most recipes call for the white part of leeks, but I use the green part if it’s not too tough. The tough leaves can go into the stock pot.
NB – you’ll need to wash leeks well between the leaves because there’s often dirt.
Also, it’s quite possible that leeks that have not been grown using organic methods will have pesticide residues on the leaves, which can’t be washed off. (Source: www.pesticideinfo.org) I haven’t found a local supply of spray-free leeks. I reckon homegrown is the best way to be sure.
1. Leeks roasted with other vegetables
Small leeks can be trimmed and roasted in the oven with a mixture of seasonal vegetables and herbs – e.g. tomatoes, capsicums and fennel bulbs; or Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, small beetroot and fresh rosemary. Toss the vegetables with a good splash of olive oil or a couple of tablespoons of melted lard, sprinkle with sea salt and ground black pepper, and roast at 175 degC until tender. Add a squeeze of lemon juice before serving.
2. Leek and potato soup
Retro and delicious.
1 or 2 big leeks (or several smaller leeks)
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into smallish chunks (approx 2cm)
1 ¾ tsp salt
1 litre hot water
500ml milk, heated a little
Chopped parsley or snipped chives
Cut off the tops of the leeks and remove any tough parts. Trim off the roots, and cut each leek into half lengthwise. Rinse thoroughly under running water to get any bits of earth that may be in between the leaves. Slice thinly.
Melt the butter in a large, heavy bottomed saucepan. Add the leeks, toss and cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Now lay the potatoes on top of the leeks. Don’t stir them in because if the potatoes sit on the bottom of the pot they may stick and burn. Cover and cook very gently for 20 minutes.
Add the salt, then add the water and warm milk. Bring just to boiling point, stirring often, then turn down low. Partially cover with a lid and cook very gently for another 20 minutes.
Puree in batches in a food processor or mouli, or with a stick blender. Or mash with a potato masher for a chunkier soup.
Return to the pan and reheat gently. Ladle into bowls and serve garnished with chives or parsley, and finished with a sprinkle of black pepper.
3. Leek and bacon tart
Leeks go really well with bacon and/or mushrooms. And cream, and cheese, and eggs...
Turn oven on to 200 degC.
1 ½ cups flour, half white, half wholemeal (or either kind, if that’s all you have)
a pinch of salt
85g butter (measure from the markings on the wrapper)
approx ½ cup cold water (maybe a bit less)
Place flour and salt in a bowl. Grate the butter into the bowl. Rub butter into flour with your fingertips until no big lumps remain.
Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture. Add water and mix with a knife just until blended.
Grease or oil a tart pan or pie dish. Spread pastry directly into pan with your fingers. Dip fingers into cold water if they get sticky. Prick surface of pastry with a fork. Cover with a sheet of baking paper. Bake 15-20 minutes at 200 degC.
Make this while the pastry is in the oven.
1 or 2 leeks (depends on size and how many you have)
Bacon – 2 or more rashers (optional)
1 cup milk or cream
90g grated cheddar cheese
Wash leeks, slice into 1cm thick slices. Place in frying pan with 2T butter. Cook gently until leeks are soft.
Cut bacon into small pieces and fry for 5 minutes.
Beat together in a bowl the eggs and milk or cream. Stir in the grated cheese.
Place leeks and bacon on partly cooked pastry. Pour the egg-milk mixture over the top.
Return to oven. Reduce heat to 190 degC. Bake 30 minutes or until the egg is set.
1. Use ½ cup of cream cheese, cottage cheese or yoghurt and ½ cup of milk (instead of 1 cup milk)
2. Instead of cheddar use gruyere or gouda.
3. Add sautéed mushrooms to the leeks and bacon.
4. Slow-cooked beef stew
Leeks have a great affinity for slow cooking.
This recipe calls for tafelspitz, which is a special German slow-cooking cut of beef sold by The Organic Butchery. But you could use any kind of stewing steak, gravy beef, or shin on bone.
In a slow cooker place 1kg of tafelspitz or other stewing steak (don’t worry about cutting it up), 1 sliced leek (more if they’re small), 2 chopped carrot, 1 rib of celery, sliced, a handful of parsley, chopped, a handful of fresh thyme, 1 bayleaf, 1 tsp honey, a splash of cider vinegar, a glass of red wine, a bottle of tomato passata, 2 tsp salt, a grinding of black pepper. Put everything into the slow cooker. Jamie Oliver reckons you don’t need to brown the meat, and it certainly saves time and effort.
Add chunks of pumpkin, potato and/or kumara if you have space in the pot.
Cook slowly for three or four hours at least. Thicken before serving with cornflour if you like thick gravy.
Pull the meat apart into chunks using two forks.
Sprinkle over the top of the stew the following:
2 cloves garlic, very finely minced
zest of one lemon, finely grated
1 Tbsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped
Serve with mashed potato or kumara