The origin of leeks is uncertain. They were grown and used for more than 3,000 years in Asia and Europe. Dried leeks have been found on ancient Egyptian archaeological sites. Wall carvings indicate the leek was an important part of the Egyptian diet.
It has been noted that Nero ate lots of leeks cooked in oil. He ate so many leeks that he was given the nickname Porophagus, which means “leek eater.”
During a Friendship Force homestay visit in Wales, I noticed that leeks are a national symbol. They are said to have been introduced by Phoenician traders. King Cadwallader and his men wore leeks in their hats to differentiate themselves from the Saxons who were their enemies. They are emblematic of victory to the Welsh and the soldiers who wore them in battle.
Shakespeare wrote about leeks, and Agatha Christie named one of her long-running characters, the eponymous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, after the leek.
Leeks have only recently become popular in the United States. They were brought to the United States and Canada by early French settlers. The French name for leeks is poireau, which means “simpleton.” Leeks were regarded as a “poor man’s asparagus.”
Leeks are not as popular today as they were during ancient times. Ironically, due to their cost, they seem to have more upscale appeal now.
One may wonder why leeks are so expensive in the grocery store. Growing leeks is not easy. Onions are easier to grow and use.
Leeks need plenty of sun, lots of nitrogen, and consistent soil moisture to thrive. They are suited to areas with cool, temperate climates. Some varieties of leeks will tolerate frost, and some can even be mulched and over-wintered.
Leeks require an inch of water a week. If moisture levels are not consistent, the leeks will develop tough stems. If there is too much rainfall in early spring, the plants can develop leaf rot. The leaves will eventually shrivel and will need to be pulled. If there is too much rain in the summer, the foliage can develop leek rust.
To produce the long white stem, leeks must be blanched much like celery or white asparagus, so they need to be planted in a narrow trench that is about 8 inches deep. As the leek seedlings grow, soil must be mounded around the stems.
Slugs can be a big problem, especially with young leek plants. Leeks also require a long growing season. Depending upon the variety, they can take as much as 120 to 150 days to reach maturity. Due to the shorter growing season in this area, leek seedlings must be started indoors.
My attempts at growing leeks have been partially successful. For me, they require too much work to make it worthwhile. I will pay the hefty price at the grocery store, when a recipe calls for leeks.
The flavor of leeks is thought to be sweeter and more subtle than most onions. When leeks are not available, I will often substitute onions in their place.
Since my attempts at growing leeks have been mildly successful, I was pleasantly surprised to find large beautiful leeks for 50 cents each at The Wild Ramp in Huntington on two occasions this fall. At that price, I made sure to get enough to freeze for dishes I plan to make this winter.
Leeks are quite versatile and can be used in many recipes. Since soil is mounded over the stalks, dirt and grit often collects between the leaves, so it is important to clean them well. To clean and prep whole leeks, insert the tip of a sharp knife and cut straight through from the tip to the pale part of the leek.
Fan open the leek and rinse under cold running water to rinse out the dirt or sand. Cut off the dark green tops of the leek, reserving as much as you want. I usually keep about 2 to 3 inches of the green leaves. (The darker tips are great to use in making soup stock.)
If a recipe calls for using whole leeks, cut the root end as close to the roots as possible, so the leeks will hold together while cooking.
Leeks can be a sturdy foundation to some of your favorite dishes, but with this Leek and Potato Galette recipe, they are the star of the show.