Leeks

Leeks (Allium porrum). The word porridge derives from the Latin porrum. So, when leeks are available, think soup. More about this soup later.

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Last summer, probably in August, I realized that some of my leeks were developing a hard flower stalk in the center, so I quickly dug all of them and completed the leek harvest in one afternoon.

Knowing that leeks don’t last long in storage, I decided to freeze them. A big deal is usually made about cleaning leeks because garden soil can so easily get between the layers. I’m happy to say this wasn’t a problem for me, although I did wash them carefully. Cut off the shanks and roots and slosh in an abundance of water. Most of the soil is lodged in the upper, more loosely wrapped layers. The upper green layers are also the toughest, so I banish them to the compost pile.

Let any soil and grit settle to the bottom. Lift out the leeks to a cutting board. Cut them in half lengthwise, and wash again, paying particular attention to the upper and outer layers.

Back to the cutting board, cut each half-stalk width-wise into many 1/2″ wide half-moons. Place in freezer containers, for me Mason jars, with some space at the top for expansion. Set the lids in place loosely, and freeze.

The frozen leeks defrost quickly and are ready for soup on demand.

In The Winter Harvest Handbook, Eliot Coleman writes that he leaves leeks in the ground, with some covering, through the winter, so why did my leeks develop a hard flower stalk so early? The answer lies in the variety. My leeks were King Richard plants from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, the only variety Johnny’s sells as plants. Their harvest window is summer–75 days from transplanting to harvest. I would like to harvest leeks later in the fall, so starting later varieties from seed will be a necessity.

This year, in addition to ordering the King Richard plants again, I have 2 seed varieties with later harvest windows. Pandora is a late summer/early fall variety–90 days from transplanting to harvest. Bandit is even later, winter, Johnny’s promises–120 days from transplanting to harvest. So, in addition to an experiment with onion seeds, I will add an experiment with leek seeds this summer.

Although leek and onion seeds can be started indoors in flats, another possibility is to plant them outside in a cold frame. Because my indoor growing space is pretty much dedicated to tomatoes and peppers, I will opt for the cold frames. If this works, I can transplant them into the vegetable garden in late spring.

Whether King Richard plants from Johnny’s, which are due to arrive the last week in March, or transplants from the cold frame, the best way to plant leeks is with a dibble. This is also true of onion plants and garlic cloves, as I have written about in other posts.

My dibble is a 1″ dowel with a 45° cut at the planting end. Eliot Coleman suggests a 9″ hole for leeks. Yikes. I know the King Richard plants aren’t that big. We’ll see how big the cold frame plants from seeds grow. However big they are, they should be planted so deep that only a little bit of green shows above ground.

In The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook, Damrosch and Coleman have great pictures of their “leek technique.” When the dibbling method, which was invented by Coleman so far as I can tell, is used, the leek plants are placed in the dibbled hole but the hole is not filled in immediately. The rain or irrigation, plus weeding, will gradually fill it in. This replaces the classic leek technique of hilling rows of leeks, gradually pulling soil up around the growing plants, keeping the long shaft underground where it will be blanched the beautiful white of a quality leek. In Four-Season Harvest, Coleman says he’s happy with a 6″ stem, which he later stretches to 9″ evidently. In raised beds, there’s no room for the hilling technique, which is for rowed crops. Mulch could be added to the raised beds to lengthen the amount of white on the stalk. Something to think about.

As I wrote in the post Hot peppers, I’m thinking of extending the vegetable garden to a sunny area outside the vegetable garden fence, mainly by planting hot pepper plants among flowers, fencing them in, and trying to keep the weeds down. Perhaps I could add a few leeks or onions around the peppers. Hot peppers are medium-sized plants for the most part, so there should be room for a leek or two.

So, here’s my leek line-up. Three varieties. All open-pollinated.

One from plants. Two from seeds.

One summer harvest. One late summer/early fall harvest. One winter harvest.

King Richard plants. Open-pollinated. Summer harvest. 75 days from transplanting to harvest.

Pandora seeds. Open-pollinated. Started in cold frames and transplanted out. Late summer/early fall harvest. 90 days from transplanting to harvest.

Bandit seeds. Open-pollinated. Started in cold frames and transplanted out. Winter harvest. 120 days from transplanting to harvest.

Now, about the soup from frozen leeks. The recipe is a version of one found in Damrosch and Coleman’s Gardener’s Cookbook. One part of this book is about their planting techniques, which have been evolving over many years of experimenting and experience. It includes sections on vegetables such as leeks, succinctly demonstrating techniques that have been written about in other Coleman books. The cookbook part is a great resource for deciding what to do with vegetables when they are brought from the garden to the kitchen. Definitely a slow-cooking kind of cookbook, although the recipes don’t always take a long time. One drawback is that many of the recipes call for heavy cream, which I don’t use. But lots of good cooking ideas nevertheless.

This recipe is Potato and Leek Soup. Classic porridge. Just in time for St. Paddy’s Day.

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Here’s my version of the recipe in a nutshell. Sauté cubed bacon. Set bacon aside and sauté defrosted leeks in a little of a bacon fat until lightly browned, as shown in photo above.

Add cubed potatoes with skins.

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I used a combination of red, gold, and purple medium-sized potatoes from Trader Joe’s, which came in a combination bag. These are simmering in the photo above. The recipe calls for adding 4 cups of water. I substituted turkey stock for 2 cups of the water because I had the stock available. A little thyme, bay leaf, a dash of nutmeg, salt and pepper. Simmer until potatoes are tender.

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The recipe first said to puree the soup, but added that a potato masher could be used for a more textured soup. I used a potato masher, as can be seen above, because I prefer the texture of the little pieces of potato skins along with the cubed bacon pieces. Really good. Can’t resist telling a story about the potato masher. It was a gift from my grandmother to my mother on the occasion of my mother’s wedding shower. I still use it but don’t put it in the dishwasher. I think it’s rather wonderful that a kitchen utensil close to 90 years old still works really well and recalls a family history as well.

Back to the soup. Add the bacon cubes back in along with a little half’n’half. The recipe calls for cream. Next time I make this soup, I don’t think I will add either. The leeks themselves add a creaminess to the soup that is all that is needed.

This summer, I hope to not only freeze leeks like last year, but also keep some at their peak in the garden into the winter months. Also to experiment with many other ways to cook using leeks.

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