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L is for leek, the lowly leek

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01/09/2008
L is for leek, the lowly leek

"You're going to rinse those real well...aren't you?  I mean, you know, cut them up and soak them?"  My visiting American friend was watching me take some leeks from the refrigerator.  I looked at her quizzically without answering.  Why did she sound so fearful?  Then I recalled--through the fog of 7 years in France--how American cookbooks are always talking about the need to thoroughly wash leeks to remove all traces of the dirt that is always lurking between their leaves.  Are American leeks particularly gritty?  Or is it the squeaky-clean American paranoia about any trace of soil in an age when "baby carrots" for most people means lathe-turned carrot shapes soaked in chlorine bleach and packaged--always packaged--in plastic?  In France, a few grains of grit are usually to be found between the tops of the leaves, and that's it.  Nothing that a quick rinse under the tap won't take care of!

Whatever the reason, leeks remain a "specialty" vegetable in the U.S., where they are inexplicably expensive.  Inexplicably, because almost nothing is easier to grow than the lowly leek.  Perhaps the most cold-tolerant vegetable, the leek can continue to grow throughout the winter in USDA Zones 6b and southward.  French market garden fields are marked out in winter by the bluegreen rows of omnipresent leek foliage.  leek field


I don't have the figures at my finger tips, but I'm willing to bet that the French consume more leeks than any other vegetable.  Leeks are omnipresent in potagers from the north to the south.  And at the greengrocer's and in markets, they're just about the cheapest thing thing you can buy.  Nearly as cheap as potatoes.
cheap leeks




Leeks have virtually no pests, require moderate fertility, and thrive in heat as well as in cold.  They don't bolt or go to flower unless they remain outdoors over the winter, after which they send up a flower stalk in late spring or early summer.  (Your chance to save seeds, should you want to.)  As they don't form bulbs, you don't have to worry about day length--as you do with onions--in planting them.  In my potager, other crops come and go, but leeks are always just...there.  Ready to be counted on, pried reluctantly from the ground, and to come into the kitchen to add their rich, mildly oniony, and always earthy bouquet to whatever I'm cooking.

I've often been struck by the fact that the frequent, almost daily, use of leeks and shallots is what most sets apart my cooking in France from what it was in the U.S.  I put shallots into nearly all my vinaigrettes, and many sauces.  Leeks I use in making stocks, and  in almost anything involving chicken or soup.  Not to mention leeks vinaigrette or other dishes starring the humble leek. 

Here in France, the leek is known as the "poor man's asparagus" (l'asperge des pauvre).  Tuck into a plate of leeks vinaigrette--a staple French comfort food--and you'll see why.  While many Americans have an inexplicable preconception that leeks are strong-tasting, nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, the leek is the mildest member of the onion family.

earthy leeksBotanically speaking, the leek is Allium porrum .  The word "porridge" originally referred to a vegetable soup containing leeks. (In French, the leek is called le poireau, harking back to its Latin name).  It is one of our most ancient cultivated vegetables, already much consumed in many variants by the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Apparently, it originated in the Mediterannean basin with the wild species Allium ampeloprasum, the "vineyard leek" or poireau de vigne in French.  Today, this wild leek remains abundant both in vineyards and in olive orchards. 

One November in Provence, when I was among the olive trees of my friend Nunzio Murano, he pulled up a giant bunch of these wild leeks and gave them to me.  They had myriad tiny bulbils attached around their roots, which must be why they thrive with the occasional cultivation of vineyards and olivettes.  Of course, I immediately cooked them.  They are much more slender than a garden leek, perfectly tender and nonfibrous, with a deliciously delicate flavor.  Dressed with a truffle vinaigrette and some sieved hard-cooked eggs, they made a memorable dish.  So good that I plan to grow them in my Provence potager!  (Take note, this species may sometimes be sold in the U.S. under the name "carambole."  Definitely worth trying if you find it.)  The vineyard leek is a perennial plant in mild regions, yet it rarely flowers.  If you decide to grow it, be sure to give it a permanent spot, as its multitude of bulbils will cause it to spread.  It requires excellent drainage and is extremely drought-resistant.  Note that in American cookbooks, ramps are sometimes advised as a substitute for the vineyard leek.  Ramps are good, but their strong garlic flavor is nothing like the delicate taste of the true wild leek.
still life leeks with apples
I'm certain that France has more cultivars of leeks than any other country in the world.  (There is even a French word to describe the edible part of the leek.  It's called le fût; which also means "barrel.") One of my  French seed catalogs lists 25 varieties!  In general, they are divided into those adapted to spring planting (summer leeks) and those adapted to planting at the end of summer (fall and winter leeks).  Summer leeks are generally taller and slenderer than winter leeks.  Their thin leaves are a bright light green.  The foliage of winter leeks, by contrast, is thick, deep blue green in color, and covered with a natural waxy coating which affords the plants their cold-hardiness.  Here is a short list of French leek varieties.

Summer leeks:

   
'Gros Jaune de Poitou'--Fast-growing, yellow-green leaves; quite cold hardy for a summer leek (to -10° C).
    'Gros Long d'Eté' or 'Long de Nice'--Very long; light green foliage.

Winter leeks:

   
'Monstreux de Carentan'--Short and stocky; the fût often reaching 3 inches in diameter.  Ancient variety still widely grown commercially in France.  Excellent cold-hardiness.
    'St. Victor'--Probably the most cold-hardy.  Foliage turns purplish in winter, making it very decorative.
    'Long de Mézières'--Long and thin for a winter leek; ancient, very hardy variety.

In France, leek transplants are sold for a couple of euros for a bunch of about 100 in almost every spring and late summer farmers' market.  But because leeks are so unpopular in the U.S., transplants won't be available in your local garden center.  You'll need to start your own from seed as the leek is a slow-growing plant (between 5 and 7 months to maturity).  For a July harvest of summer leeks, start your seed in flats in February and set them out in April.  But try to find extra-deep flats, as leeks have massive root systems and need room to develop.  For winter leeks, sow in April to May direct in the garden  for transplanting after about 6 to 8 weeks.  Growing the transplants in garden soil allows them to become big and husky much faster.  The seed germinates in 8-15 days.

Note that in France, leek seedlings are always transplanted, even if the seedlings themselves are grown out in the garden.  In France, they are transplanted when about the thickness of a pencil (already big enough to serve in a delicious vinaigrette!)  Transplanting allows you to set the seedling much deeper than it was originally growing, eliminating the need to hill up for blanching so often referred to in American growing guides.  Hmmm, maybe this tedious hilling up procedure is why American gardeners hesitate to grow leeks, and why commercially available ones are so dirty in the U.S.  They're throwing soil on top of them!

Eric RousselWhen I started to write this article, I realized I didn't even have any photos of the humble leek!  So Denis and I spent a January weekend in Normandy, the Kingdom of the Leek, taking leek mug shots.  We had driven up a dead end road leading to a bunch of greenhouses which I figured must belong to a market gardener.  A woman wearing mudboots approached us,  carrying a plastic bag that had leek leaves peeking out of it.  She turned out to be the wife of Eric Roussel, who grows not only leeks but just about every vegetable you can think of on about three hectares of land and sells in local farmers' markets.

After Denis explained that I was an American journalist (only anMr. Roussel and I American would write about anything as prosaic as the leek, according to Denis), Mr. Roussel kindly drove us around to his leek field.   Just look how great those beauties look in mid-January!  He plants about 800 grams of seed each year (that's almost 2 pounds of seed!).  Guess he must know how to grow leeks.  The leeks in this field were transplanted at the end of June.  Mr. Roussel likes to sell them when they're no more than 3/4" in diameter, rather than the monstrous inch or more of the industrially produced leek sold in supermarkets.  At this size, the leeks are more tender and flavorful. 
leeks with carrots
Interestingly, Mr. Roussel confirmed my theory of why American leeks are so dirty.  Rather than go through the trouble of deep-transplanting them, American growers are direct-seeding them in the field, then using a tractor to throw soil up over them as they grow to blanch them.  This soil gets trapped between the leaves of the growing leek and becomes impossible to remove except by the famous slicing-and-soaking method.

Leeks are much more tolerant of heavy soils than onions, but like all alliums except the shallot, they need good fertility. This is especially true when you're growing your transplants.  Feed them weekly with manure tea.  Good leek transplants are much easier to grow in a coldframe or small greenhouse, or in open soil, than in a flat, which is too shallow to accommodate their massive roots and allow good development.

Leeks need a deep fertile soil, amended with 4-6 inches of rich compost.  Unlike their wild forebears, they like humidity, so water them thoroughly and often.  If you plan on overwintering your leeks in the garden, choose a spot as protected from prevailing winter winds as possible.
closely planted leeks
Set your leeks out about 8 inches to a foot apart in rows 18 inches or more apart.  Remember, set them with their roots about 6 inches below the soil level, and snip off the tops of the foliage to encourage rapid development.  Water thoroughly, of course.

Weed your leeks once by hand, then cultivate shallowly around them to keep weeds down.   In France, leek capital of the world, they are  never mulched, so I don't mulch them either.  But if you're planning on overwintering your leeks, mulch them with straw or oak leaves at the first frost.  Avoid fertilizing winter leeks after mid-August, as the feedings will make them less cold-hardy.

Leeks can be harvested any time.  Pencil-thin to the size of a finger, they are a delicacy, to be briefly blanched and then served in vinaigrette of truffle-scented oil and your best red wine vinegar and classically garnished with sieved hard-boiled egg.  If you should have a truffle to shave over them, they will only be better, as the French would say.  At this point, they can no longer be referred to as the asparagus of the poor.

To harvest your leeks, always arm yourself with a garden fork.  They have formidable root systems, and you will not be able to pull them up simply by yanking on them.  Take a knife into the garden too, to cut off the roots at the base of the stem and leave them and their adhering clot of soil on the compost pile.
leeks bio
Bigger, thicker leeks are more fibrous but still delicious and never strong in taste.  You can reduce their fibrosity by peeling off the first few layers.  Leeks are fabulous and in fact de rigeur in the classic pot-au-feu, the French version of the boiled beef dinner.  They are excellent in any soup, and can usually replace onions in any soup recipe with superior results.  Melt sliced leeks slowly in butter and serve them as a bed for baked or sautéed fish.

Only the white and lightest green portions of the leek are consumed directly.  But save your leek greens to enrich your stocks.  I never make a bouillon without a bouquet garni including leek greens, which have the decided advantage of keeping almost indefinitely in the refrigerator. 

While leeks are grown and consumed everywhere in France, they are a staple of the northern third of the country.  In winter potagers all over Normandy, for instance, the leek patch rides out the darkest months, along with a few cabbages, carrots, and mâche. leeks in January potager
Meanwhile, in the south of France, it's garlic that is the pre-eminent allium.  One late June in Normandy, when I hadn't yet planted my fall leeks, but when my garlic was just about ready to harvest, our farmer neighbor paid us a visit.  He shook his head in apparent wonderment, complimenting me on my potager.  I understood that implicit in his compliment was his incredulity that a parisienne--let alone an américaine--would know how to grow even a radish.  "Only thing is," he said a bit sadly, pointing to my garlic, "Your leeks are looking a little dry!"



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Products of Interest:
Leek 'de Carentan'
Leek 'St. Victor'

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