The leek is one vegetable that is a recipes type-cast. Best known for its inclusion in vichyssoise, American kitchens typically use leeks in soups. We don’t think the poor leek will add much flavor to any other dish. However, leeks have a long and delicious history, including being a national emblem for Wales. This unassuming vegetable may resemble an overgrown scallion, but can hold its own in any recipe. With a sweet but mild onion flavor, leeks can add depth to soups and pies as well as adding crunch to a salad.
Leeks, known scientifically as Allium porrum, are related to garlic, onions, shallots, and scallions. Leeks look like a large scallions, having a very small bulb and a long white cylindrical stalk of superimposed layers that flows into green, tightly wrapped, flat leaves. Cultivated leeks are usually about 12 inches in length and one to two inches in diameter and feature a fragrant flavor that is reminiscent of shallots but sweeter and more subtle. Wild leeks, known as ramps, are much smaller in size, but have a stronger, more intense flavor. Ramps are available for a short period of time in early spring, and are often widely sought out at farmers markets when they are in season.
With a more delicate and sweeter flavor than onions, leeks add a subtle touch to recipes without overpowering the other flavors that are present. Although leeks are available throughout the year they are in season from the fall through the early part of spring, when they are at their best.
Leeks in History
Leeks enjoy a long and rich history, one that can trace its heritage back through antiquity. Thought to be native to Central Asia, they have been cultivated there and in Europe for thousands of years. Dried specimens have been found at archaeological sites in ancient Egypt indicating the leek was a part of the Egyptian diet. Leeks were prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans and were especially revered for their beneficial effect upon the throat.
The Romans are thought to have introduced leeks to the United Kingdom, where they were able to flourish because they could withstand cold weather. The leek was the favorite vegetable of the Emperor Nero, who consumed it in soup or in oil, believing it beneficial to the quality of his voice.
Leeks have attained an esteemed status in Wales, where they serve as this country's national emblem. The Welsh regard for leeks can be traced back to a battle that they successfully won against that Saxons in 1620, during which the Welsh soldiers placed leeks in their caps to differentiate themselves from their opponents. Today, leeks are an important vegetable in many northern European cuisines and are grown in many European countries.
Leeks are usually sold in bunches, generally about four leeks to a bunch. Look for unpackaged leeks with the roots and dark green leaves intact, which give them longer life. Packaging in plastic promotes rot.
Look for straight, firm stalks with unblemished white bottoms and bright green leaves. Avoid leeks with very dark green tops or rounded (rather than flat) bottoms, which can be signs that the vegetable is overgrown, old, or both. Smaller leeks are the tenderest.
Good quality leeks will not be yellowed or wilted, nor have bulbs that have cracks or bruises. Select leeks with a clean white slender bulb, at least two to three inches of white, and firm, tightly-rolled dark green tops. The base should be at least 1-/2 inch in diameter, although most are much larger, usually 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 inches. Since overly large leeks are generally more fibrous in texture, look for those that have a diameter of one and one-half inches or less. Try to purchase leeks that are of similar size so as to ensure more consistent cooking if you are planning on cooking the leeks whole.
Check the center of the leek for a seed stalk (the hard stalk can sometimes can be felt with a gentle squeeze) and avoid any you find. Those with a seed stalk beginning will have a tough, woody center. Avoid leeks that are limp.
Fresh leeks should be stored unwashed and untrimmed in the refrigerator, where they will keep fresh for between one and two weeks. Leeks will exude an aroma that can be absorbed by other things in your refrigerator. They are best stored lightly wrapped in plastic wrap, to contain the odor and moisture, and kept in the product drawer of the refrigerator.
Depending on the freshness factor when you buy them, leeks can be stored anywhere from five days up to two weeks. Cooked leeks are highly perishable, and even when kept in the refrigerator, will only stay fresh for about two days.
Leeks are unfortunately not a good candidate for freezing or canning unless you plan on using them in soups or other recipes rather than as a main dish. Freezing tends to turn them to mush and lends a bitter taste. If you decide to freeze leeks, cut into slices or whole lengths. Seal in airtight bags, freeze, and use within three months. To preserve flavor, do not thaw before cooking further. Use frozen cooked leftovers for soup within three months.